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London, 1802 by Wordsworth: Summary & Poem Analysis

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  • 0:01 Wordsworth's Poetry
  • 0:41 London, 1802
  • 1:34 Who Is Milton?
  • 2:30 Where Are the 'Davids?'
  • 3:21 The Standard
  • 4:06 Poem Analysis
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Although Wordsworth wrote his poem 'London, 1802' two centuries ago, its words still ring true today. In this lesson, we will examine the poem's meaning and message.

Wordsworth's Poetry

William Wordsworth considered poetry to be his chief genre and tool for communication. He was very concerned with how humans interacted with nature. As he grew older, Wordsworth became alarmed as he realized that people around him were becoming absorbed in trivial entertainment, including shallow literature, while neglecting the great classics of Shakespeare and Milton.

Wordsworth wrote 'London, 1802' as a call to action. Many of his poems were criticized during his lifetime because of their lofty tone and subject matter. But Wordsworth was eventually named Poet Laureate in 1843.

'London, 1802'

Let's first examine the poem, 'London, 1802,' itself.

'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;
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 heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.'

Who Is Milton?

Before unpacking the meaning of this poem, we should first look at the person 'Milton,' who is addressed in line one. John Milton lived from 1608-1674 and was highly influential in English society, both religiously and politically. He is most famous for writing 'Paradise Lost,' an epic poem on the fall of man in Genesis.

Wordsworth calls to Milton, telling him that he should be alive during this time period, for England needs him. He calls London a 'fen,' or a swamp. Wordsworth is saying that London is like a marsh with 'stagnant waters.' Here he is implying that London is not in a healthy state, not thriving in 'altar, word, and pen.' It seems that this stagnation has affected not only the church and military, but the English writers, as well. Wordsworth is alarmed by the moral decline in his country.

Where Are the 'Davids?'

When Wordsworth writes 'Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, (h)ave forfeited their ancient English dower (o)f inward happiness,' he is pointing back to the great epic stories of old where warriors sat around stone tables in great halls sharing stories of valor. What Wordsworth sees around him is change, a modernization that alarms him. Where are the great halls? Where are the warriors of old?

And who is left to fight the great battles? Would someone really step forward almost like David in the Old Testament and face the giants? Wordsworth describes his generation as 'selfish men,' and longs for someone, like Milton, who would lead England back to moral integrity - to 'manners, virtue, freedom, and power.'

The Standard

Wordsworth laments that Milton was that 'star,' using a metaphor to compare Milton to a guide for lost sailors. Just as sailors would chart their courses by the stars if they had no compass, so someone like Milton could guide Wordsworth's 'lost' generation to a healthy moral state.

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