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"London, 1802" works on so many levels. First of all, it's an obvious call for help; the poet, William Wordsworth, laments the state of England, and expresses his fears about the health of the national character. Second, it's an elegy for John Milton, a great English poet of the 17th century (famous for the super-long and spectacular epic, Paradise Lost). Finally, it's just a gosh darned good old-fashioned sonnet. In just fourteen lines, Wordsworth manages to invoke his poetic forefather, sketch out his view of England's character and inhabitants, and demonstrate to us just how skilled he is with rhyme and meter by crafting a gorgeous Petrarchan sonnet. Wow. What more could you ask for?
Not only is the sonnet an accomplished and polished example of its form, it's also a bold condemnation of the poet's nation and fellow countrymen. This, you might think, must have taken some real guts. Well, guts and confidence. "London, 1802" wasn't actually published until 1807, despite its misleading title. By that time, Wordsworth was an established poet; along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (of Rime of the Ancient Mariner fame), he had basically created what would come to be known as Romantic poetry, which burst onto the scene in 1798 with a collaboration between the two poets, simply titled Lyrical Ballads. These poets and their contemporaries (who included Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Blake) attempted to use poetry as a mediator between humanity and nature; they saw verse as a way to directly express the emotional experience of human life, ideally in spontaneous, clear language.
Wordsworth's poetry was well received. Poems in Two Volumes, which contained "London, 1802," was actually his third book. After this productive period, Wordsworth's fame continued to grow – he actually became Poet Laureate of England in 1843, and remained in that position until his death in 1850.
A country in the midst of an identity crisis…a passionate need for change…major stress about the state of the nation. Sound familiar?
In this poem, Wordsworth appeals to the spirit of John Milton to help England pull itself out of a major slump. We might detect some parallels in America's 2008 presidential election, when the idea of "change" was the name of the game for both political parties.
Wordsworth knew he was living in a flawed country, and he perceived England as a nation that had lost sight of its past glories. In this poem, he longs to remind his countrymen of what England used to represent. Similarly, both Democrats and Republicans (as well as Democlicans and Republocrats) frequently call upon our perceptions of what the United States of America represented in the past and of what it should represent in the future.
"London, 1802" doesn't get into specific political issues, but instead asks readers where the character of England went astray. Imagining that very same question being posed on Capitol Hill is not difficult. We can be certain that, were Wordsworth to time-travel his way into modern day America, he'd be pretty riled up about the kind of change going down.
Wordsworth and Romanticism
A brief and very useful discussion of the Romantic movement, as seen by Wordsworth.
An engraving of the city circa the poem's date.
The poet, looking quite young and dashing.
The older poet, whose moral sense didn't help too much with his fashion sense, apparently.
Paradise Lost, found online
A collection of e-texts of Milton's most famous work.
Wordsworth at the Poetry Foundation
This site offers a variety of Wordsworth's greatest hits – check it out if you enjoyed this poem.
Everything you need to know about Milton…
… that we didn't learn from Wordsworth, courtesy of luminarium.org.