London, 1802

William Wordsworth


William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth is one of the most renowned and influential Romantic poets.

He was England's Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850.

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Although it might seem hard to believe, poets are just like everyday people. They experience loss and feel frustration. William Wordsworth, for example, spends ‘London, 1802,’ critiquing and mourning what London has come to. He’s determined that in an ideal world, the long-dead John Milton would return from the grave, shake some sense back into the English people and industrialization would screech to a halt.

Composed in 1802, as the title suggests, it is published in his collection Poems, in Two Volumes, published in 1807. Wordsworth, who is known for his admiration for nature, takes on the role of critiquing modern England. He looks back at the seventeenth century as a happier time.

London, 1802
William Wordsworth

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:England hath need of thee: she is a fenOf stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,Have forfeited their ancient English dowerOf 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 heartThe lowliest duties on herself did lay.
London, 1802 by William Wordsworth



Wordsworth’s ‘London 1802′, depicts the degradation of societal values, and his hope for Milton to restore England to its former glory.

In ‘London, 1802’ Wordsworth nostalgically looks back at England before the Industrial Revolution.  According to him, it was once a place of happiness, religion, chivalry, art, and literature. Now everything is changed, and it has lost those virtues. It has become a swampy marshland of “stagnant waters” lost to the scourge of modernity.

Therefore, he calls upon Milton wishing, he was alive at this time to teach his country things like “manners, virtue, freedom, power.” Further, Wordsworth compliments Milton by comparing him to the stars, the sea, and “the heavens.” For, in Wordsworth’s view Milton was different even from his contemporaries in terms of the virtues mentioned, with the ability to embody “cheerful godliness” even while doing the “lowliest duties.”

Form and Structure

Wordsworth’s ‘London, 1802’ is a sonnet, written following the Petrarchan form, like his other sonnets  “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” “The World Is Too Much With Us” etc. The poem is primarily written in iambic pentameter, with few exceptions of “trochee”, especially in the beginning “Milton.” Following the Petrarchan form, it has the rhyme scheme of “ABBA ABBA CDD ECE.” Being written in the second person narrative, the poem is in the form of an address to John Milton.

Themes and Setting

‘London, 1802’ is used to fulfill two main purposes of Wordsworth. First, it pays homage to Milton, who lived between 1608 and 1674, notable for his epic Paradise. During the time of the Civil War, Milton helped the people to retain virtues and religious values. Likewise, he wishes, Milton to be alive now to save England with his nobility and virtue. Second, the poem draws attention to things like “manners, virtue, freedom, power” which he feels lost in England.

The poem is set in London, the center of thriving modernity, in 1802. The time denotes the poem being written in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. England was a driving force, and a vibrant center of industrialization, but, to the nature poet, the country’s technological advancements mean nothing compared to its decadence of values.

Literary/Poetic Devices

Literary or poetic devices employed in a poem help the poet to emphasize on his emotions, feelings, and ideas to the readers. In ‘London, 1802’ Wordsworth substantiates his view on England’s moral decadence amidst its thriving industrialization with his tone, and other devices such as Apostrophe, Metaphor, Symbols, Enjambment, Metonymy, etc.

  • Tone. In ‘London, 1802’, Wordsworth has used a pleading and praising tone. When he calls for Milton to save England and its society, using his ideologies, his urgency and desperation to save his country are expressed in a pleading tone. At the same time, while honoring Milton of his achievements, he employed a praising tone.
  • Apostrophe. The figure of speech Apostrophe is used to address a person or thing, either absent or dead on the scene. In this poem, the speaker or the poet employs it at the beginning of the poem to call out “Milton!” It addresses John Milton, the 17th-century poet, who is dead by the time the poem is written.
  • Simile and Metaphor. These devices are used in the poem to make comparisons. In the third line, the poet compares England to a fen, not an ordinary but a fen “of stagnant waters” to mean England has lost its vigor. Further, while praising Milton, the speaker compares him to natural elements. In line 9, he compares Milton’s soul to a bright and powerful star. And, in line 10, he compares Milton’s voice to “the sea,” to depict its power and the ability to influence.
  • Personification. Wordsworth in his attempt to present the degradation of England caused by the people,  pictures England as a human. He personifies England as a woman, by saying “England hath need of thee: she is a fen.” It helps the readers to associate England too has a heart and has weaknesses like humans.
  • Enjambment. In poetry, enjambment refers to the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza. In ‘London 1802,’ there are a few occurrences of enjambment as in lines 2, 3 “fen/Of stagnant waters” and 5, 6 “ancient English dower/ Of inward happiness.”
  • Symbols and Metonymy. The poet’s description of England becoming stagnant and corrupt in all quarters serves as both symbols and metonymy. The poet employed metonymy in “altar, sword, and pen, Fireside” to symbolize the church, the army, its writers, and homes, which is corrupted. Accordingly, in the sestet, he employed natural images to symbolize purity as a contrast to England’s current status.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1 to 8

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. We are selfish men;

O raise us up, return to us again,

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!

The Octave of ‘London, 1802’ like in any Petrarchan sonnet reveals the poet’s intention or purpose of writing the poem. The speaker addresses John Milton, hoping that he is alive at this time (1802), for England needs him more now than at the time he lived. He expresses his plight, for the country has become like a swamp full of still water. When looking at England’s prosperous history, the county’s current religious values, Military, literature, common life, and the country’s economic glory are no longer the same. The ultimate problem and reason for decadence are revealed in line 6, “We are selfish men.”  Therefore, he calls upon Milton and seeks his help to uplift the people of England, to the former glory. He wants him to rise from death and give British society its “manners, virtue, freedom, power.”

Lines 9 to 14

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 eulogizes Milton in the sestet of ‘London, 1802’. The poet compares Milton’s soul to a star that stood out from all others in the sky. His voice is compared to the sound of the sea, compelling and inspiring in nature. Further, Milton’s goodness and the sense of freedom are compared to “the naked heaven.” These qualities of Milton help to demonstrate the devoted religious life led by him while living an ordinary life as everyone. The humble nature of Milton despite the godly traits presented by Wordsworth is given in the last line. By contrasting the characteristics of Milton being a successful poet and a simple man, Wordsworth tries to demonstrate, to his countrymen the ideal life one must lead.

About William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth, one of the founders of English Romanticism was born on April 7, 1770, in the Lake District of England. Because of the place where he was born and lived came to be known as a Lakeland Poet. It is renowned for its beautiful, wild landscapes, charming pastures, and countless lakes, that inspiration could be seen in his poems with nature imagery. He is best known for the Lyrical Ballads, co-written with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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Miz Alb Poetry Expert
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.

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