A summary of a classic Wordsworth sonnet
‘Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour’. With this opening line, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) begins one of his most famous sonnets. Although he’s best-known in the popular consciousness as the poet who praised daffodils and wandered lonely as a cloud, ‘London, 1802’ shows a Wordsworth who is very critical of England and its people, and looking back nostalgically to a happier time in English (literary) history. Here is ‘London, 1802’ with some notes towards an analysis of the poem.
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!
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.
In summary, Wordsworth addresses the poet John Milton (1608-74), or, more specifically, apostrophises him (this is when you address someone who is dead and/or absent). Wordsworth expresses the wish that Milton were still alive, because his country, England, needs him now. England has become stagnant and corrupt in all quarters: the church (‘altar’) has become corrupt, the army and England’s military standing (‘sword’), its writers (‘pen’), and even the home (‘Fireside’). All is corrupted. The ‘heroic wealth’ that once made England’s homes and countryside great has been given up, and with it the country has lost its ‘inward happiness’. Everyone – and Wordsworth includes himself here – has become selfish. Only Milton, it seems, can restore England to its former greatness, by restoring the virtues that it has lost.
Wordsworth then praises Milton’s gifts: his soul was like a star which ‘dwelt apart’, suggesting Milton was one in a million among men, but also a lone voice crying in the wilderness, the only man who could cut through the nonsense and show England where it was going wrong. Milton’s voice is associated with the sound of the sea, pure as heaven. Although Milton was ‘majestic’ (i.e. like a king) he also travelled ‘on life’s common way’ and was happy to perform the ‘lowliest’ (i.e. humblest or simplest) duties. It’s not clear how deliberate this is, but the two images in the first part of the sonnet (the octave), the ‘stagnant waters’ and the corrupted fireside, find themselves made glorious again in the water and fire symbols that appear in the second part of the sonnet (the sestet): namely, the mighty vastness of the sea and the white heat of the star used to describe Milton. Of course, it’s possible to over-analyse these things, but it’s a nice fortuitous touch, if nothing else.
Why Milton? It’s significant that he reaches for the author of not only Paradise Lost (1667) but also Areopagitica (1645), the first defence of the freedom of the press written in English, and still one of the most important. Milton also lived during the English Civil War and supported Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians who fought against the King, Charles I. Milton’s most famous work, Paradise Lost, is – at least in one interpretation – about mankind being liberated from the unreasonable strictures placed on them by God. (William Blake certainly thought so.) So, Milton stands for liberty and freedom of various kinds.
Wordsworth wrote his poem addressed to Milton in 1802, as his title tells us. In 1802, Wordsworth was a literary celebrity, thanks to the publication of Lyrical Ballads, which he co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1798. Wordsworth had been a staunch supporter of the French Revolution in 1789, later declaring, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!’ But by 1802, the Revolutionary regime had given way to Napoleon’s imperial tyranny, and the Napoleonic Wars. How can England defend itself against a foreign power while there is such corruption and selfishness among its people? Milton thus stands as a beacon of enlightenment and integrity, a man who has the best interests of England at heart and has the skill and influence to make a real political difference. (As well as being one of the finest English poets of the seventeenth century, Milton was also an influential pamphleteer, as Areopagitica, among others, attests.)
In short, then, Wordsworth exclaims ‘Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour’ because John Milton got the country through the difficult period of the English Civil War and showed that freedom, liberty, and opposition to tyranny are noble values worth defending. In the last analysis, ‘London, 1802’ is a fine sonnet because, although it threatens to lapse into a moaning rant by a former radical poet about the state of his country, it is saved from this by its genuine concern for the country and a wish to make it better with words rather than swords.
Image: Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Haydon, 1842; via Wikimedia Commons.