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London 1802 Summary Analysis Essay

In the beginning of "London, 1802" William Wordsworth cries out to the dead poet, John Milton, telling him that he should be alive, because England needs him now. He goes on to describe England as a swampy marshland of "stagnant waters" where everything that was once a natural gift (such as religion, chivalry, and art, symbolized respectively by the altar, the sword, and the pen) has been lost to the scourge of modernity:

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.

The speaker continues by telling Milton that the English are selfish and asking him to raise them up. He asks Milton to bring the English ("us") "manners, virtue, freedom, power":

We are selfish men;

Oh! raise us up, return to us again;

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

The speaker then tells Milton that his "soul was like a Star," because he was different even from his contemporaries in terms of the virtues listed above. The speaker tells Milton that his voice was like the sea and the sky, a part of nature and therefore natural: "majestic, free." The speaker also compliments Milton's ability to embody "cheerful godliness" even while doing the "lowliest duties":

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.

Analysis

"London, 1802" is a sonnet with a rhyme scheme of abbaabbacddece. The poem is written in the second person and addresses the late poet John Milton, who lived from 1608-1674 and is most famous for having written Paradise Lost.

The poem has two main purposes, one of which is to pay homage to Milton by saying that he can save the entirety of England with his noblity and virtue. The other purpose of the poem is to draw attention to what Wordsworth feels are the problems with English society.

According to Wordsworth, England was once a great place of happiness, religion, chivalry, art, and literature, but at the present moment those virtues have been lost. Wordsworth can only describe modern England as a swampland, where people are selfish and must be taught about things like "manners, virtue, freedom, power."

Notice that Wordsworth compliments Milton by comparing him to things found in nature, such as the stars, the sea, and "the heavens." For Wordsworth, being likened to nature is the highest compliment possible.

Line 1

Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour;

  • The poet calls out to Milton, and wishes that he was still alive in the present day.

Lines 2-3

England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,

  • Apparently, the speaker thinks that Milton could help England on the whole out; he sees the country as a "fen" (2) – a kind of swamp – full of gross standing water. You know, the kind of gross marshy pond that's covered in algae and slime and warty toads…nice.

Lines 3-6

Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness.

  • OK, this is a big hunk jam-packed with symbols, so bear with us. The speaker is distressed by the fact that certain elements of traditional English life have lost their magic.
  • To go piece by piece, he's worried about religion ("altar"), war/military concerns ("sword"), literature ("pen"), the home ("fireside"), and the economy ("the heroic wealth of hall and bower"). So… basically everything.
  • He's concerned with his perception that these things are no longer tied to the "inner happiness" of the English people; in former days, they were fundamentally linked to the rightful success of the nation – this is the "dower" (a kind of gift) that the speaker refers to – but now these institutions have lost their meaning.

Lines 6-7

We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;

  • These lines are pretty clear; the speaker declares that "we" (the English people of his time) are selfish and debased, and he begs Milton to help them get out of their slump.

Line 8

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

  • The speaker thinks that Milton could inspire the English to be better all around – nicer, more virtuous, and more powerful.

Line 9

Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;

  • Milton was a very special guy (according to the speaker, at least). The poet compares the older writer to a star, something removed from the mass of humanity, and superior to the rest of us.

Line 10-11

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,

  • Here, the speaker's not actually talking about Milton's speaking voice – instead, he's referring to his poetic voice. Basically, he claims that Milton's poetry was as powerful and amazing as the forces of the natural world, like the sea and the sky.

Line 12-13

So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness;

  • Whoa there – let's take it back a step.
  • Instead of continuing to rave about Milton's hyperbolic virtues as a poet, the speaker takes the last few lines to let us know that Milton was a good guy, too. Instead of getting all up on himself, he followed "life's common way" (12) just like the rest of us, and lived his life happily and virtuously.

Line 13-14

and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

  • Milton, according to the speaker, didn't just rest upon his laurels and get all arrogant about how awesome he was; the closing lines of the poem emphasize his humble nature.
  • Instead of taking it easy, Milton took on "the lowliest duties" (14) – that is, he didn't avoid unglamorous tasks.
  • We wonder what exactly the speaker is thinking of here. Perhaps he's referring to Milton's intense and unflinching observations of human nature.