London, 1802 Themes
The main themes in “London, 1802” are cultural decline, the power of the soul, and literary guidance.
- Cultural decline: Wordsworth’s poem describes England as being in a state of decline, having lost much of its strength and virtue.
- The power of the soul: The poem argues that England needs a kind of spiritual renewal, exemplifying Milton as the ideal soul.
- Literary guidance: Wordsworth’s invocation of Milton has both moral and poetic dimensions.
Last Updated on April 19, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries marked a period of upheaval in the Western world, as the Industrial Revolution took hold and both France and the United States underwent dramatic political revolutions. Indeed, “London, 1802” was written shortly after Wordsworth returned from a trip to post-revolutionary France, and he implicitly compares the vanity and vapidity of English culture unfavorably to the solemnity he witnessed during his visit. Having been surrounded by the aftermath of the revolution, Wordsworth seems to take issue with the relative stagnance of English politics, religion, and society. In response, the poem’s speaker invokes Milton as both a beacon of individual enlightenment and as a symbol of a bygone era of moral radicalism and positive change. In his eyes, English culture has become a “fen of stagnant waters,” having lost the artistic, social, and political energy that defined earlier ages.
Milton was highly regarded by both his own contemporaries and subsequent generations of readers for his intellectual capacity, artistic skill, religious devotion, and independent moral compass. He published numerous political pamphlets urging social and religious reforms, and works such as Paradise Lost are secure in the canon of English literature. In the speaker’s eyes, Milton was a man who was uniquely in tune with both himself and the world around him, living a life of passion and “cheerful godliness.” Although Milton lived in a “common” way, he had access to an inner happiness that the speaker believes modern English society has lost touch with.
The speaker claims that modern English society has “forfeited their ancient English dower / Of inward happiness.” In his view, happiness and prosperity are a birthright for the English people, and rather than attributing the current stagnation of society to any outside forces, he instead places the onus on the English themselves. No one has stolen away their ancient dower; instead, they have squandered it through their own selfishness. It is precisely this self-defeat that inspires the speaker to call out for a Milton-like figure. Milton lived during an era of political upheaval, and he called upon the people of his time to lift themselves up and become better. The speaker looks to the past as an example of what he hopes to see happen in the present: a figure must arise who can unite the English people and encourage the masses of England to abandon greed and bitterness in favor of “manners, virtue, freedom, power.” In doing so, the English people can reclaim their birthright of happiness and prosperity, restoring the glories of the past.
The Power of the Soul
During the Industrial Revolution, many contemporary artists, philosophers, and members of the clergy expressed the worry that technological advances would have a negative impact on the state of the human soul. The Romantic movement, in particular, was concerned with the relationship between humans and the natural world, which they perceived as being under threat by the increase in industrialization. Indeed, according to the speaker, England itself has already been transformed into a “fen of stagnant waters,” having been rendered corrupt and ineffectual. The soul of the country has been weakened by a populace that no longer has concerns for justice, progress, and political revolution and instead contents itself to remain idle and derivative. However, the fate of the collective soul of England is not permanent, nor does it need to determine the fate of the individual souls who reside there.
Romantic poetry is concerned with the interiority of the individual and the nature of emotion. The autonomous soul who stands apart from society and refuses to be changed by the opinions of others is glorified. Milton exemplifies this role within “London, 1802.” His “soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart,” allowing him to express his religious, political, and artistic views, free of the corrupting influence of mainstream thought. This radical individualism is praised as an indication of the sheer power that Milton possessed. He was as “Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,” unencumbered by the thoughts and restraints of others. This, the speaker claims, is what “England hath need of.” They still possess all the tools needed to reclaim their historical prosperity: the “altar, sword, and pen” are still theirs to wield. It will simply require a new generation of Milton-like souls—theologians, military leaders, politicians, and artists—to re-inspire the masses. The invocation of Milton, then, is less of a cry of helplessness and more a call for inspiration. Milton is long deceased, but his ideals and the example he set in life may yet provide the salvation that the speaker believes modern English society needs.
Writers of every era have been influenced by their literary forebears. In most cases, these influences are implicit in the work, subtly shaping the writer’s tastes and choices or appearing in the form of allusions. But in some works, authors will overtly invoke a literary predecessor as a guide, the most famous example perhaps being Dante’s invocation of the Roman poet Virgil in his Divine Comedy. In “London, 1802,” Wordsworth makes an explicit request for guidance from John Milton, one of the central English poets of the seventeenth century.
The nature of this request is layered. Initially, Wordsworth’s speaker calls on Milton primarily for his moral and political wisdom. Having painted a portrait of a decadent England that is only a shadow of its glorious past, the speaker wishes Milton would “raise us up” and “give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.” In the octave, Milton’s appeal and relevance lies in his intellect and judgment, as displayed in his political writings, such as Areopagitica.
The sestet reveals a second layer to the speaker’s request. Milton is desired not only for his virtues but also for his “voice whose sound was like the sea.” The sestet thus combines Milton’s virtue and his voice, conflates his soul and his style. This correlation is appropriate, given that the strength of Milton’s ideas are inseparable from the strength of his poetry and prose. It is appropriate, too, because Wordsworth’s request takes the form of a poem, implicitly suggesting that the form language takes matters as much as the content conveyed.