London 1802 by William Wordsworth - Summary & Analysis

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Milton! thou should’st 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. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

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.


      Wordsworth’s sonnet, London 1802, thou should’st be living at this hour is a criticism of the people of his times. He complains that they had degenerated so much that only Milton could raise them up from the depths to which they had fallen. As in the case of the other sonnets, the central idea is expressed in the opening line that Milton should be living at that time. The reason why he should, is explained in the next seven lines. The last six. lines explain how Milton was the only person competent for the task. They bring out the essential features of the character of the great poet and reformer of the seventeenth century.

      It is necessary to remember the circumstances under which the poem was written in order to appreciate it to the full. Wordsworth wrote it soon after his return from France which he toured at the time of the great Revolution. He was struck deeply by the contrast between the misery of the people of France and the luxurious life led by the richer classes of his own country. This led to corruption in all spheres. The people had lost their capacity for inward happiness which could be had only be leading a simple life of virtue and freedom. Love of freedom and virtue had been characteristic of the people of his country in the past. They were the clower or the heritage of former generations. But they had disappeared owing to the selfishness of the people. The canker had spread to all walks of life. Even clergymen, writers and soldiers who should preserve their purity if the nation were to prosper, had become corrupt. Progress had stopped on all fronts. The country was like a marshy land containing stagnant water which bred diseases all around.

      Having explained the deplorable condition of the people of his time, Wordsworth explains that Milton alone could raise them again and give them manners, virtue, freedom, and power. He was fitted for the task, since he was first and foremost a reformer. He was the noblest of men. He was majestic like the heavens and lived a life of severe purity that was impossible for others. He lived on a plane which it would be impossible for others to reach. He was like a star that dwelt by itself without equality. His voice, as revealed in his poems and pamphlets, was as powerful as a trumpet and had great effect on the people of his time. Above all, in spite of his greatness, he was humble and took upon himself the lowliest of duties, if they were necessary for the sake of society. Hence, Wordsworth concludes that Milton should come back to England at that time and reform the people of the nineteenth century, as he influenced the people of the seventeenth century.


      This sonnet London 1802 (To Milton), was written during the same visit to London as inspired written in London, September, 1802 (“O Friend: I know not”) and probably also The world is too much unthus. It was published in 1807. Wordsworth invokes Milton as the representative of the lofty and austere ideals of conduct cherished by the noblest leaders of the Puritan party.

      While bringing out the defects of the people of the time of Wordsworth, the sonnet throws light on the essential features of the character of Milton also. The poet deals more with Milton the man than Milton the poet. Milton was an ardent fighter for freedom in all spheres. He insisted on a high standard of purity in all walks of life. Not content with preaching a high standard, he lived a life of purity. Hence, Wordsworth is perfectly right when he remarks that his soul was like a star that dwelt apart. Further, though he played a part in high circles in the course of the Civil War between the Parliament and King Charles I, he was essentially humble and did not consider any duty too low for him. This is the virtue that is admired most by Wordsworth. Hence his conclusion that there was no man better fitted for the task of raising the selfish people of the nineteenth century and giving them manners, freedom, virtue, and power, than Milton.


      A compact style is a noteworthy feature of the sonnet with every line loaded with meaning. Expressive similes are employed to communicate the meaning forcefully—such as Milton’s soul being compared to a star, suggesting brightness, purity, and uniqueness. Other similes include Milton’s voice being compared to the sound of the sea and his purity of soul to the naked heavens.

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