This poem is extra-special-fancy by Wordsworth's standards; we can imagine him sitting down, clearing his throat, cracking his knuckles, and thinking, "What would Milton like?" This is kind of like buckling down to write a fan letter to your favorite celebrity, dead or alive, in which you want to tell them just how totally amazing he/she is, and how much you really, REALLY love him/her.
We imagine Mr. Wordsworth crossing out line after line, trying to create a poem that could possibly express his overwhelming angst at the state of England, and also be worthy of addressing the absent-yet-looming figure of Milton, before settling upon this version of the poem, which is, we must admit, more than a little fawning. It's almost too adoring; we can practically picture Wordsworth swooning and sighing, "Oh Milton, is there anything you couldn't do?"
Wordsworth poses the problem of England's personality crisis, and makes Milton out to be the solution; the implication is that, if all of his compatriots could just be like the divine Mr. Milton, everything would be peachy keen. Wordsworth's immense respect for Milton, as both a poet and a highly moral human being, are communicated through the language of the poem, which ends up reading like an elegant and plaintive love letter from one straight male poet to another.
So, the poem was written in 1802 – and we'd guess that it was written in and about London. It's pretty straightforward. The poet paints a picture of the state of the English people as he saw them in a specific time and place; we are to believe that these contemporary comrades of Wordsworth's are far less worthy than the heroic Englishmen of the past.
The title may declare the setting of this poem to be "London, 1802," but we don't envision a big, bustling, dirty city when we read it – instead, the mental space created by the poem is the "fen of stagnant waters" (2-3) that Wordsworth summons up to represent the state of the English character.
This is not a happy little pond; instead, it's gross and green and covered in algae, and it probably doesn't smell all that great. Imagine the poet disdainfully picking out a path around this mess, trying not to get mired in the mud – the foul mud of a depraved society, that is! Sorry, all this wilderness imagery is making us unusually dramatic.
Anyway, Wordsworth is unhappily squelching around in the metaphorical fen, thinking of how great England used to be. To continue with the whole body of water thing, the country and its people were previously clear, clean, and pure. In contrast to the current swampy and unhealthy state of the nation, Wordsworth creates another imaginary space, that of the open sea (Ah! Finally, a breath of fresh air.) and the clear, broad expanse of the sky, both of which represent the spiritual and poetic greatness of Milton, who in turn represents England's former splendor.
There are two Wordsworths operating in this poem, and, as a result, it seems as if two speakers surface. The first speaker is stern, somewhat judgmental, and generally disapproving. The second is a speaker head-over-heels in literary love with an older man. Let's take a look at both of them.
Speaker #1, who gets the main stage for the first eight lines of the poem, is a strict moralist unhappy about the character of contemporary England. Maybe he's bit of a curmudgeon. Maybe he got stuck in a carriage-jam in London's busy streets and came home with a little residual road-rage. Maybe his cravat is too tight and it's making him irritable. Whatever it is, this speaker is not a happy dude. He's worried that the country has forgotten its past successes, and lost pride in what used to make it great. He longs for days past, when Englishmen were free, courteous, accomplished, and powerful – however, in his perception, those days are long gone. The people of England need a poetic savior to step up and inspire them to greatness once more…
…And that poetic savior is John Milton. The problem is, he's dead. This is where Speaker #2 makes his entrance and dominates the poem from this point on (lines 9-14). He attributes almost divine greatness to Milton, who, he claims, was both a poetic and moral force. This speaker is totally enraptured by Milton, and he lingers over descriptions of the dead poet's all-around superiority. He abandons his attack on England, and perhaps grows a little giddy in his praise of Milton. He ends the poem with lavish praise of Milton's humbleness, and doesn't overtly return to the initial theme of England's decline. It's up to us to figure out the moral of the poem, which is that we, the readers, should all strive to be more like Milton in our everyday lives.
Altogether, what kind of image do we have of the speaker? Well, he's both tough and a bit of a softie; he's judgmental but lavish with his praise; he's both an optimist and a pessimist. He's a little of this and a little of that. In other words, he's just as human as the rest of us.
Wordsworth is a pretty straightforward guy most of the time. If anything, he has a tendency to be earnest to a fault. His poetic mission was to express emotion clearly and passionately – which, most of the time, means using language that all of us can understand. Now, remember that Wordsworth set out to do this in 1802. Language that seemed perfectly fresh to him may look a little musty to us. However, despite its age, this poem is still an accessible read.
Part of what makes Wordsworth's poetry so appealing, even two centuries after its first publication, is its readable, direct quality. So much of the poetry we encounter is super-complicated – in fact, readers sometimes make the mistake of thinking that a good poem has to be complicated. Wordsworth, along with many of his Romantic contemporaries, proves that a poem doesn't have to be covered in rhetorical ruffles and frills to be great. "London, 1802" is a little more fussy and frilly than some of Wordsworth's other work, but it still manages to get its point across pretty directly.
We can also characterize Wordsworth's poetry with his concern with nature, human and otherwise: stuff like flowers, trees, long walks in the hills, and introspection. This particular poem focuses more on the latter than any of the former. While Wordsworth was often interested in examining his own life – after all, this is a man whose most famous work is titled "The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet's Mind: an Autobiographical Poem" – he tackles the broader issue of English self-hood in "London, 1802."
First of all, "London, 1802" is a sonnet. This means a few things off the bat: it's written in iambic pentameter (or, in this case, a pentameter that's most often iambic). What, you may ask, does this mean? We can break these words apart and see. Pentameter means that there are five metrical "feet," or building blocks, in every line. In this case, the word iambic tells us that each unit is a two-syllable group consisting of unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one – da dum. Try saying it out loud – da dum da dum da dum. Good! Don't worry, nobody saw you.
Let's get back to business. Since every foot is two syllables, we can do some simple math and figure out that all together there are ten syllables in each line of the poem. One of the few flawless lines of iambic pentameter in the poem is line 9 – let's say this out loud, too:
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart.
Awesome. We foresee a great future for you as a popular reader of books on tape. Now, hush your dulcet voice so we can explain the form.
"London, 1802" is a Petrarchan, a.k.a. Italian, sonnet. This form differs in rhyme scheme from the classic Shakespearean (English) sonnet. The Italian sonnet is divided up into an eight-line first section – an octave – that can be subdivided to two four-line mini-sections (quatrains) and following an ABBAABBA rhyme pattern. The second part of the poem is a sestet (that is, a six-line section) that can follow one of a few different rhyme schemes. The order that Wordsworth chooses to follow, CDDECE, is somewhat unconventional, but still within the realm of the Italian sonnet.
Whew! That was a lot of letters and numbers packed into two short paragraphs. To sum up, here's the rhyme scheme of the poem, just so we're clear:
Lines 1-8: octave – ABBAABBA
Lines 9-14: sestet – CDDECE
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The most obvious, glaring literary device at play here is Wordsworth's address of John Milton, an English poet of the 17th century. Not just any English poet – like, the English poet of the 17th century. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, one of the greatest epic poems of all time, which was incredibly important on many levels: first, as a truly amazing work; second, as an exploration of theological issues; and, finally, as a hugely important building block of what we think of as English literature. In summoning up the memory of Milton and addressing the dead poet directly, Wordsworth aligns himself with this tradition of great English poets, a move that's both artistic and nationalistic.
Wordsworth was really into nature. You know, like, really into nature. We don't know if he actually went out and hugged trees and stuff, but he certainly got close to them whenever possible. Much of his poetry is in the pastoral mode (basically meaning that it had to do with the beauty of nature and the glories of the countryside). Even in this poem, misleadingly titled "London, 1802," the poet manages to bring up natural imagery and doesn't once mention the city of London. Wordsworth uses images of nature as both positive and negative forces in this poem, framing both Milton and England itself in the natural world.
The big question here is very clear: what the heck is going on with England? Wordsworth is concerned about the country's loss of traditional values and strengths, and he really lays it all out here pretty plainly. He loves his country, but is worried by what he sees happening to his countrymen, from both moral and cultural perspectives.
This is going to sound ridiculously redundant, but here goes: poetry is important to poets. You're all probably shaking your heads out there, sarcastically muttering, "Gee thanks, Shmoop, you are so insightful." Seriously, though – poetry is a favorite topic of many a poet. Wordsworth is no different. While this is mostly a poem about England, it's also a poem about English verse. By invoking Milton's spirit, Wordsworth reminds us of the illustrious tradition of his country's literature. He's not asking Milton to come back and just hang out, after all; instead, Wordsworth longs for the great poet to return to England and restore the country to its previous greatness – literary and otherwise – with his powerful "voice" (10). His poetic voice, that is (though, who knows?, maybe Milton was an awesome baritone. That irrelevant mystery will have to go unsolved for now).
Wordsworth invokes images of the heavens here to show us just how awesomely awesome Milton is (or rather, was). All of us mere un-poetic mortals are earth-bound and inferior in comparison to the semi-divine Milton, whose talents and innate goodness elevate him (figuratively, that is) above everyone else.
For a fleeting moment at the beginning of this poem, we think, "Hey there, Wordsworth, you're getting kind of racy!" All this talk of England being "a fen/ of stagnant waters" (2-3) makes us wonder what's really going on under the scummy surface of this social bog. However, being Wordsworth, the poem politely avoids any commentary of an even remotely sexual nature.