Analysis of William Wordsworth's "London, 1802"
The sonnet "London, 1802" by William Wordsworth, first published in 1807 (Wordsworth 64), deals with the speaker's criticism of the political, religious and socioeconomic state of England at the beginning of the 19th century which is juxtaposed by an idealization of the English poet John Milton as a writer and a member of English society in the 17th century. "London 1802" is part of a group of poems that are generally referred to as Wordsworth's "Sonnets on Independence and Liberty" (Sarker 245). Like other sonnets of this group it illustrates "Wordsworth's advance from the poet of rapturous impulse to the poet of duty and fortitude" and thus, his turn towards a reflection on political and socioeconomic issues of his contemporary time in his poetry (130). In this regard Wordsworth uses form and content in "London, 1802" to express this criticism and to call for change in the English society of his time.
In terms of form, the poem can be regarded as a Petrarchan sonnet. As such, the form of "London, 1802" already establishes an intertextual reference to John Milton who also often uses the pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet in his poems like in "On his Blindness". Sarker argues that in particular Wordsworth's sonnets reflect his literary inspiration by John Milton's style as a writer (Sarker 244f). Wordsworth's sonnet contains 14 lines and is subdivided into an octave, which is consisting of two quatrains (l. 1-4; l. 5-8), and a sestet (l. 9-14). The rhyme scheme of the poem also matches the form of the Petrarchan sonnet. While the two quatrains have an embracing rhyme (a b b a; a b b a) and corresponding cadenzas (female, male, male, female; female, male, male, female) the sestet rhymes "c d d e c e" and each of the lines ends with a male cadenza. The rhymes and the cadenzas structure the poem and underline its thematic subdivision into two different sense units: a negative description of contemporary England in the first (l. 1-8) and the idealization of John Milton as a fictive potential liberator of England in the second sense unit (l. 9-14). With respect to the idealization of Milton in the sestet it is remarkable that only male cadenzas are used. They produce very firm endings of lines that suggest a very masculine, powerful and dominant image of John Milton.
Almost throughout the entire poem Wordsworth uses an iambic pentameter. However, he sometimes deviates from it at significant moments of the sonnet. For example in line 1, 2 and 7 he uses trochees instead of iambs which make these lines stand out and mark them as important because they break with the conventional pattern. These trochaic deviations startle the reader and arouse his or her attention. In line 1 and 7 they emphasize the emotional exclamations "Milton!" and "Oh!". Apart from that they also establish an interconnection between the words "Milton" and "England" which appear at the beginning of two consecutive lines (l. 1-2). They suggest a close relation between Milton as an Englishman to his country and also introduce the poem's central theme of England as the issue and Milton as the solution to the problem. While the speaker addresses Milton consistently it rather serves a didactic function to make the reader, that is, his contemporary society aware of and critical about the problematic situation England is facing at the beginning of the 19th century. Another deviation can be found in the middle of lines 6 and 13 where the words "happiness" and "godliness" end with two unstressed syllables instead of one which makes these words become salient and interconnects them in terms of meaning. While "inward happiness" (l. 6) has been lost it is Milton's "cheerful godliness" (l. 13) that is reminiscent of this old, vanishing feeling. The speaker makes Milton part of a nostalgic vision of the past that juxtaposes the image of a corrupted country in the present. Wordsworth's deviations from the standardized sonnet can also be related to his appreciation of John Milton's literary stylistic individuality that is expressed in works like Paradise Lost (Bradford 139). This notion of individuality and freedom can be expressed by the use of caesuras like for example in line 2, 3 and 13 which interrupt the flow of reading.
The setting of the poem's content is given with the synecdochical title "London, 1802" which refers to the capital of England but as such also stands for the entire country that also becomes the objective of the poem. The title also triggers the reader's personal associations that come up when he or she thinks about London at the time and makes one become involved. While the reader might come up with all kinds of different associations, the speaker directly forces one to think of the writer John Milton and to relate him with the city since the exclamation "Milton!" is the first word in the first line of the poem. As it has already been indicated above, the trochaic meter underscores the exclamatory effect of the beginning that arouses the reader's attention instantly. Moreover, it emphasizes the speaker's unconventional and distinct approach toward a representation of London and England of juxtaposing them to a human being. The fact that the next line starts with the trochaic "England" adds to the effect that the reader has to perceive the country of the present against the backdrop of a popular writer of the past. In these first lines the speaker expresses his wish to see John Milton alive again to prevent the country from decaying or dying which is expressed by the words "England hath need of thee; she is a fen / Of stagnant waters" (l.1-2). At this point several stylistic devices are important. First of all England is personified because "she"needs Milton. Thereby a country becomes mortal like a human being. The metaphor "fen / Of stagnant waters" suggests that the city has become subject to stagnation and immobility, and is therefore a filthy place that signifies death and decay. Thus, Wordsworth creates an antithesis of life and death, the wish for revival of a dead poet and the witnessed decay of a country that is still in existence. The assonance "England hath need of thee; she is a fen" again emphasizes the close relation between the country and one of its former citizens. When the speaker refers to "this hour" that Milton is needed (l.1), it is most probable that he speaks of the rise of the industrial revolution and the ongoing war with France (Bradford 139). By the accumulation of the metonymies "altar, sword and pen" (l. 3) the speaker blames religion, the military and the government (law, education, politics) for the present deterioration of the country. It is also the accumulation of wealth and the capitalist ambition for superficial material goods (l. 4-5) that seem to have replaced the "English dower / Of inward happiness" (l. 5-6). In his criticism of the state of society the speaker does also make himself responsible for the condition of England as a member of the population when he says "We are selfish men" (l. 6). This statement criticizes the loss of altruism in society that lays the harmful foundation for the corruption of London and England.
In the subsequent line it is again Milton who is addressed with the trochaic line "Oh! Raise us up, return to us again" (l. 7) is often interpreted as intertextual since it may refer to the lines "what is low in me, raise and support," in Milton's Paradise Lost which ask for God's help (Burt & Mikics 111). In Wordsworth's poem the speaker asks Milton, who is characterized as epitomizing "godliness", for help to support England to rise up again. The fact that the first syllable is stressed triggers a break with the iambic pattern and makes this line salient among the others. The exclamation again signifies the speaker's emotional involvement in the problematic situation. He expresses his desperate hope for improvement and wishes for Milton to save the country. He is the one who could give England back what it lacks the most, namely "manners, virtue, freedom [and] power" (l.8). Since Milton is already dead and Wordsworth is aware of the fact that he can't revive him literally, it is also his literary work that is praised by the speaker. His literature lives on and in literature the actual addressee of the poem, the English public, can regain the values that are mentioned above.
The following sestet switches the perspective and also the tense from the simple past to the simple present. It is dedicated to John Milton and provides a description of him as a person and a writer before he died. In the tradition of Romanticism the speaker elevates the poet and renders him significantly different from other, common human beings. By using similes that compare his soul to a star and his voice to the sea (l. 9-10) he expresses his admiration of Milton by comparing his features to natural phenomena1. Moreover, the unification of the stars and the sea in the person of Milton makes him appear as the perfect vertical connection between the universe and the earth. Thus, the poem features the theme of bringing together two opposites and transforms them into one which is a typical method of Romanticism. The interconnection of stars and sea constructs an image of a "cosmic setting" (Durrant 149) or a cosmic unity epitomized by John Milton. Milton is described as "Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free" (l. 11) which puts him right between the stars and the sea. The image of unity as opposed to the isolating selfishness of people in contemporary England is also emphasized by the consonance of using harmonious "s"-sounds frequently in lines 9 and 10. The word "voice" (l. 10.) suggests this interpretation as the reader is really expected to read the words out loud and to listen carefully to the harmony that is conveyed by the sound that is generated by these words which implicitly also alludes intertextually to the aestheticism that is present in Milton's work. The simile "pure as the naked heavens," as well as the words "majestic [and] free" are used to construct an antithetical juxtaposition to the representation of England as a "fen / Of stagnant waters". While England has lost its mobility, health and vividness, Milton is represented as a pure and free human being that exceeds others by possessing a majestic character.
The fact that Milton is said to travel on "life's common way" (l. 12) doesn't make him appear as pretentious but humble despite his perfection as a human being and his "godliness" (l. 13). It works as an antithesis to the image of the altar in line 3. The poet has a closer relation to God and even appears to have features of "godliness" while the preachers in churches seem to have lost their connection to God as there are represented as being responsible for the problems the English society is facing (l. 4-6). As poets are regarded as closer to God than any other human beings except of children this image is not really special. What is remarkable though is the fact that by idealizing Milton in this way the speaker also idealizes the author of "London, 1802", namely William Wordsworth, at the same time. Milton is described as noble because he was concerned with the "lowliest duties" (l. 13). These duties may be understood as his profession of being a writer who addresses social wrongs in society. According to the speaker he put himself in the service of his country by his persistent attempt to address and overcome the problems in society. It is rendered as a decision that was made by his heart which is also personified by the words "thy heart / The lowliest duties on herself did lay" (l. 13-14). The inversion at the end of these lines emphasizes that it was his patriotic heart, that is, his emotional close connection to England that made him do so and lay this duty on him. With his poem Wordsworth puts himself in the same position as Milton as he also addresses the problems of his time. The idealization of Milton as a popular and well-respected author seems like a legitimization of adopting Milton's form and content to criticize the state of England in the 19th century.
One comes to the conclusion that the sonnet "London, 1802" is an expression of social criticism. In the socioeconomic context of the industrialization, the rise of capitalism and the war with France Wordsworth addresses the negative consequences of this development and demands for change by reinstalling the values that were possessed by Milton and are required to regain "inward happiness" (l. 6). Thus, the speaker in the poem feels connected to England as a member of the English population and loves his country as a patriot but feels forced to address its wrongs to facilitate change for a better future. The criticism of life in the city is typical for Romantic poetry with exceptions like "Composed upon Westminster Bridge". The fact that Wordsworth criticizes different spheres of English life and expresses his resentment so openly was surely regarded as controversial after the poem's publication.
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1 For the literary scholar Jennifer Wagner the words "star” and "voice” also render Milton as the perfect leader of the nation towards freedom (Wagner 67).