Study Guide

London, 1802 Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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.

  • Lines 1 and 2: Well, it's no secret as to whom this poem is addressed. Wordsworth immediately invokes Milton, using apostrophe throughout the poem – the poet directly addresses the big J.M. himself.
  • Line 7: Again, Wordsworth apostrophizes Milton, begging him to return from the dead and help England find itself again.
  • Line 9: You got it – apostrophe again ("Thy soul was like a Star"). That's not it, though; here, Wordsworth uses a simile to compare Milton's soul to a star, presumably far better than the rest of us poor saps.
  • Line 10: Another double whammy of apostrophe and simile; this time, Wordsworth rapturously tells Milton that his poetic voice "was like the sea" (10) and was "pure as the naked heavens" (11).
  • Lines 12-13: Wordsworth apostrophizes Milton one last time, claiming that the older poet lived just like everyone else.
  • Line 14: Last but not least, Wordsworth personifies Milton's humble heart, saying that it took all of the "lowliest duties" upon itself.

The Natural World

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.

  • Line 2-3: Gross. The first appearance of nature occurs here, in Wordsworth's striking metaphor for the country, which calls England "a fen/ Of stagnant waters" (2-3). This isn't quite the floral, sheep-filled idyll we usually imagine when we think of Romantic poetry. This grotesque image of sickly standing water shows us that there is something rotten in the state of England.
  • Line 10: This next natural image is more positive; we've got more water here, but it's in a much better state. Wordsworth crafts a simile to describe Milton's poetic voice here, comparing it to the sea.

English Tradition

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.

  • Line 3-4: Here, we get a huge list of symbols of England's past glories. First, let's look at the two synecdoches here: "altar" represents the English church, and "fireside" stands in for the security of home. We also have two instances of metonymy; "sword" represents the British military, and "pen" indicates the entire English literary tradition.
  • Line 5: Wordsworth uses metaphor here to describe "inward happiness" as a "dower" (dowry), a kind of gift rightfully owed to the English people. A dowry is traditionally a certain amount of money or goods given by the bride's family to the groom as part of a marriage agreement.


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).

  • Line 3: Metonymy alert! When Wordsworth refers to the "pen" here, he doesn't actually mean some giant all-powerful writing implement (though that would be pretty spectacular, wouldn't it?). Instead, he's referring to the whole English literary tradition of the past.
  • Line 10: Wordsworth expresses the power of Milton's "voice" in this simile, in which he compares it to the sea.

Celestial Bodies/The Heavens

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.

  • Line 9: Wordsworth constructs a simile to show us that Milton's "soul was like a Star," and was separate from all the rest of us.
  • Line 11: In addition to his stellar personal qualities, Milton's poetic voice was also quite impressive; in another simile, Wordsworth tells us that his hero's poetry is "Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free." Imagine the vast and impressive nature of a clear night sky – apparently, that's what reading Milton is like.

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