London, 1802 Summary
“London, 1802” is a sonnet by William Wordsworth about England’s decadence at the turn of the nineteenth century and the need for John Milton’s virtuous example.
- Wordsworth’s poem begins by invoking John Milton, wishing for his wisdom and guidance in confronting the social and spiritual ills of contemporary England. Selfishness has resulted in a lack of happiness and virtue.
- Wordsworth’s speaker praises Milton’s singular brilliance, compelling literary style, moral fortitude, and humility, altogether finding in him a model for the present age.
Last Updated on April 19, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597
“London, 1802” is a Petrarchan Sonnet written by English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. The poem was composed in 1802, but it was not formally published until the 1807 release of Wordsworth’s collection Poems, in Two Volumes. At the time that Poems was published, Wordsworth was highly regarded for his contributions to Lyrical Ballads, which he had originally published jointly with fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798, and which was later re-released with additional content in 1800. By contrast, Poems received broadly negative reviews from critics. Though the collection contains several of Wordsworth’s most famous works—including “London, 1802,” “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” and “The World is Too Much With Us”—contemporary reviewers took issue with Wordsworth’s tendency to focus on his own thoughts and feelings in a form and diction that they found common and dull. Modern scholars, however, recognize that much of what Wordsworth presents in Poems displays hallmarks of the emerging Romantic form, and the collection as a whole is perceived as an iconic work of English Romantic poetry. “London, 1802,” specifically, is valued as both a poem and as a work of contemporary social criticism.
“London, 1802” is a Petrarchan sonnet consisting of fourteen total lines. While it lacks distinct stanzas, the poem can be divided into two sections: the first eight lines comprise the octave, and the final six lines comprise the sestet.
The octave begins with an impassioned address, or apostrophe, to seventeenth-century English poet and intellectual John Milton, who is perhaps best remembered as the author of the biblical epic Paradise Lost. The speaker laments that Milton is no longer alive, as the speaker believes that “England has need” of him at this time, the turn of the nineteenth century. Wordsworth’s speaker then compares the current state of English society to a “fen of stagnant waters,” or a pool of water that has grown stale and marshy due to a lack of motion. Such bodies of water often develop a filmy appearance and rank odor, further emphasizing the sense of decay and rot being evoked. According to the speaker, this stagnation has resulted in England losing its historic prosperity, as its religious institutions, military pursuits, artistic output, economy, and even domestic values—represented by the altar, sword, pen, “heroic wealth of hall and bower,” and fireside, respectively—are all in decline. By becoming a “selfish” nation, the English have “forfeited” what the speaker believes is their birthright: “inward happiness.” The speaker believes that the past represents an age of glory, prosperity, and momentum that has been lost in the modern era. The octave ends as the speaker calls upon Milton to “return to us again” and restore “manners, virtue, freedom, power” to all of England.
The sestet shifts into a eulogization of Milton and a consideration of his qualifications for helping to restore moral order to England. The speaker compares Milton to the powers of nature, claiming that he was a “Star” with a voice “like the sea.” In the speaker’s eyes, Milton’s artistic and political voice was as “pure as the naked Heavens,” suggesting the accuracy of Milton’s descriptive powers. The speaker admires that although Milton was an exceptional individual, he lived life in the “common way,” drawing joy and cheer from a simple existence that was grounded in his religious beliefs. No duty was too lowly for Milton, who lived humbly and wrote thoughtfully. It is these qualities that the speaker believes England needs now, and he laments that Milton is no longer alive in order to provide the necessary moral and artistic guidance.