Last Updated on April 19, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884
“London, 1802” is a Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet. It is composed of fourteen lines, which are written primarily in iambic pentameter, which means the lines are composed of five metrical feet, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable being followed by a stressed one. The poem is divided into two sections, with the first eight lines comprising the octave, and the last six lines the sestet. The poem follows one version of a traditional rhyme scheme for a Petrarchan sonnet, with the octave following an ABBAABBA scheme, while the sestet follows a CDDECE scheme. The rhyme scheme of the sestet can vary, but Petrarchan sonnets generally avoid ending on a rhyming couplet. This is to preserve the integrity of the sestet as a complete poetic thought, rather than having it split into a separate quatrain and a couplet, as is standard in the Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnet forms.
The octave and the sestet are traditionally regarded as separate but complementary sections of a Petrarchan sonnet. Often, the octave introduces the poet’s question or concern, and the sestet provides an answer, solution, or alternate perspective. Wordsworth both blurs this distinction and adheres to it, invoking Milton through apostrophe, or direct address, from the beginning before transitioning into his discussion of modern English society. The first eight lines of the sonnet address the speaker’s worry that England has become a “fen of stagnant water.” He describes how the various institutions within England have “forfeited” progress and happiness, forsaking “manners, virtue, freedom, power.” The first line of the sestet forms the volta, or turning point within the sonnet. After dwelling on the corruption and decline of English society, the speaker now turns to the previously addressed Milton as the possible remedy.
On the topic of meter, the entire poem employs metrical inversions and caesuras, or punctuated pauses within poetic lines. The first line begins with the opening invocation of “Milton!” This is a moment of apostrophe in which Milton, rather than the reader, is being directly addressed. This invocation is also an inversion of the traditional iambic meter of a Petrarchan sonnet, as the stress falls on the first syllable of “Milton.” By beginning with a trochaic foot, or a metrical unit where the stressed syllable precedes the unstressed one, Wordsworth calls attention to the subject of the poem and foregrounds Milton’s importance. This trochaic phrase is then punctuated with an exclamation point, which forms a caesura, demanding a pause and granting the invocation of the deceased poet a further emotional resonance. “Milton!”is not only an apostrophic address but also an impassioned cry, as the speaker calls out for guidance and inspiration that he no longer feels he can find within modern English society.
This trend of frequent metrical disruption and mid-line stops continues throughout the octave, diminishing the lyrical quality of the lines and instead emphasizing the speaker’s distress over the state of modern England. However, lines nine and ten, which form the sonnet’s volta and the introduction to the sestet, are written in perfect iambic pentameter. This metrical perfection signifies a sense of relief, as the speaker venerates Milton’s life and work. The speaker’s soul is soothed by the shift in topic, and his eulogy for the deceased poet is written with a more careful adherence to form. Essentially, Milton’s apparent moral and intellectual superiority can help calm the imperfect stagnance that has overcome English society. The internal rhyme of “Star” and “apart” in line nine further punctuates this shift. Throughout most of the octave, the metrical imperfections and frequent end-stop punctuations detract notice from the end rhymes. However, the sestet reemphasizes formal conventions, which thematically aligns with the speaker’s belief that Milton’s “voice” was both thoughtful and skillful.
One of the things that the speaker most appreciates about Milton is his ability to maintain “inward happiness” while living a common, godly life. The idea of a simple life that was attuned to the natural world was a deeply held value of both Wordsworth and many of the Romantic poets, who often wrote about emotional experiences using images drawn from the natural world. “London, 1802” continues this trend. When describing the apparent decline of English prosperity, Wordsworth employs the nature-based metaphor of a stagnant fen, or shallow, unmoving region of marshy waters. Rather than evoking the beauty or serenity of nature, this image instead engages the visual and olfactory senses in a negative manner, calling to mind the appearance and scent of a putrid bog. This swampy state is figured as an unnatural and undesirable one for England, which has, at least in the speaker’s eyes, historically possessed a prosperous and overflowing virtue. The metaphor, then, suggests that in order to cleanse itself of its putrefaction, England needs an infusion of fresh water, or impassioned efforts and ideas. Fittingly, the speaker brings in a corresponding metaphor when he describes Milton as having a “voice whose sound was like the sea,” strong and robust enough to revitalize the stagnation of modern England’s “fen of stagnant waters.” It is the voices of Milton and those with similarly revolutionary talents and ideas that can give England the momentum needed to reclaim the “ancient English dower” of inward happiness and return the nation to its former glory.