Even without the content of the general historical frame, William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “London 1802,” is moving to every generation that reads it, and it is natural to compare our current political situation with the one described in the poem.
All of us, of course, remember the dire circumstances of England in 1802. No? Then we cannot possibly understand William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “London 1802,” right? I might be able to call up the general historical frame—the imperial rise of Napoleon in France; the era of sea battles (including those of Lord Nelson) that Patrick O’Brian celebrates in the Aubrey-Maturin novels; and the reign of the same George III who had lost the American colonies fifteen years before and who was still on the throne seventeen years later when Percy Bysshe Shelley described him as “an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King.” But to get a real sense of what it was like in London in 1802, I would have to read several histories of the time, biographies of prominent figures, letters and journals of those less prominent (to get the “life-sense” of the day), fiction and essays written at the time, and probably modern fiction set in that era. Imagine what it would take two centuries from now to reconstruct “Washington 2021.”
So how is it that ignorance of the historical particulars does not affect my enjoyment of the sonnet at all? In the “octave” or eight-line exposition, Wordsworth sets up the problem and appeals directly to Milton:
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.
Milton has always been a highly problematic figure. He stands with Shakespeare as the greatest of English poets. His immensely engaging epic about the Fall of Man, Paradise Lost, was first published in 1667, but it remains brilliantly accessible once the reader gets used to the flow and resonance of Milton’s majestic verse. Milton was primarily a poet, but he was also embroiled in the politics of England. He wrote his Areopagitica, a famous defense of “The Liberty of Unlicensed Printing,” for an “energetically anti-Catholic” Parliament (as someone described it) when the fear of coercive censorship arose in 1643. Not only did he work in league with the puritans who overthrew the English monarchy and executed Charles I, but he wrote a treatise defending the execution. He served as Latin secretary (corresponding with foreign governments) in the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. He remains tremendously controversial.
But the biography of Milton does not affect my enjoyment of the poem, either, because the sonnet, like a constitutional form, has an integrity that shines most when it meets individual insight and talent. The particulars of the poem lend themselves to analogy because Wordsworth achieves a “rightness” in the form. London aside (and London 2021 has its own difficulties), it is natural to compare our current political situation with the one described in the poem. According to the insistent heralding of a new age of light and peace, Washington is at last no longer “a fen / of stagnant waters.” Wonderful. In that case, Milton’s proclamation in Areopagitica seems unnecessary: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” If all is well, then this sentence has no pertinence, either: “though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.” In other words, Milton writes, let everything on a topic be said, because the truth will always defeat falsehood without need of official suppression by the reigning ideology.
This poem is moving to every generation that reads it, I suspect, because each generation senses that it has not lived up to its promise. Our institutions (even the Church) and our private lives have forfeited the “heroic wealth” of nobility and “inward happiness,” which too often give way to anxiety and rage. The greatness of our cultural “dower” slips away from us, so that the appeal to Milton, problematic as he is, rings true, especially as Wordsworth characterizes him in the last six lines:
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.
Wordsworth imagines the aged poet, completely blind for over two decades, persecuted by the monarchy after the defeat of his party and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Milton’s poetic voice was as vast and elemental as the sea, and he composed an epic worthy to stand beside Virgil’s without being able to see a line of it written. His soul “dwelt apart” at a height rare in human achievement—and yet Wordsworth does not end his poem with praise for Milton’s poetry, but instead for the simple humility it took to “travel on life’s common way / In cheerful godliness.” Surely, Milton had that humility because of his long meditation on the fall of the man and the need for grace. What would it look like if achieving the highest things led us to walk without pretensions? May the meditation strike us to the heart.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “Milton” (1878) by Mihály Munkácsy and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.