What is the significance of the poem "London 1802"?

epollock | Student


William Wordsworth's poem London, 1802, is reproduced here:

MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
    England hath need of thee: she is a fen
    Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
    Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
    O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
    Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
    Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
    So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
    The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Wordsworth’s apostrophe (speaking to inanimate object or non-existent object) to John Milton (MILTON!), has the effect of appealing to one of the greatest figures in the English literary tradition. It is likely that Wordsworth is thinking as much of Milton’s connection with the causes of freedom developed during the revolution and interregnum (1642–1660) as of Paradise Lost.

Wordsworth's claims that the church (altar), the military (sword), the intelligentsia (pen), home and family life (fireside), and the legal establishment (hall and bower) have all lost the sense of meaning and direction that is their heritage (have forfeited their ancient English dower).

The overstatement (hyperbole) of the "fen / Of stagnant waters" and the broad brush leveled against the institutions  are clearly designed to show Wordsworth’s general political alarm, not to describe each individual in the country. He therefore dramatizes his point that the country needs new thinkers, and new guidance, in the tradition established by Milton.

The claim Wordsworth makes for Milton is that the great poet was a special person, in tune with God and Nature, but that he was also a person who lived in “life’s common way.” Therefore he combined the intelligence and compassion necessary in a national leader. The metonymy of soul and heart refer to Milton’s spirituality and humanity.

The poem is a forbidding political sonnet to one of his greatest themes: there is a need to discover new and thoughtful leadership.

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