Romanticism was a shift in literature, art and culture during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, involving a pulling away from the philosophical rationalism of the Enlightenment. There was a resistance to formal conventions and rules, and uninhibited self-expression and authentic feeling were encouraged and admired. This fostered the development of poetry that was generally natural and free, with an emphasis on nature and sensibility.
It is easier to understand Romantic poems if we can place them within their historical context, and sometimes the relationship between the poem and the circumstances in which it was produced are not entirely self-evident.
"London 1802" by William Wordsworth
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.
England - a Land of Corruption and Political Upheaval
"London 1802" by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is a sonnet, written in iambic pentameter, that invokes and eulogizes the seventeenth century poet, John Milton, in order to make his essential political point: "Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour / England hath need of thee." This political message is intended for a wide general readership and emphasises Wordsworth's great respect for John Milton and his admiration for Milton's republicanism. These bold first lines are a cry from the very soul of the poet for deliverance from a crisis encapsulated in his shocking metaphor for a ruined England, that follows in the latter part of the third and beginning of the fourth lines: "She is a fen / of stagnant waters."
The poem, read in its historical context, takes on a deeper meaning if we understand that it was written six months after the Peace of Amiens in 1801. It was the "Peace of Amiens" that allowed Wordsworth to visit France in 1802. The sonnet partly reflects the contrast the poet felt between France and the more materialistic England.
Wordsworth grieves for what England is left with: the corruption of a land ruled by mad King George III after the political upheaval and unrest after the war with France and the recent revolutions in Europe. He shows both nostalgia and an uneasy patriotism in the lines: "Altar, sword and pen / Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower / Have forfeited their ancient English dower / Of inward happiness." The poet laments the glory that has been lost, using strong, masculine nouns (sword, pen.) In calling upon a revered and long dead poet, Wordsworth idealises the lost past.
Idealisation of the England of John Milton
This idealisation indicates the poet's fear for the future. The octet in the sonnet is addressed to Milton in strident terms: "...We are selfish men; / Oh, raise us up, return to us again." The sestet is gentler, as Wordsworth reminisces and expounds upon the virtues of the dead poet: "Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart." Milton's voice is likened to "the sound of the sea" and "Pure as the naked heavens."
The last three lines show Wordsworth's perception of Milton's humility and godliness: "So didst thou travel on life's common way, / in cheerful godliness and yet thy heart / The lowliest duties on itself did lay." For Wordsworth, what England has lost can only be regained through consideration of an idealised past.
Wordsworth's moralising is overt and pessimistic, despite its strident tone, as it laments the loss of an ideal, entreating Milton to return to give us the great qualities of "manner, virtue, freedom, power." Even in the sonnet's poetic devices, such as the use of the terms "thou, shouldst, hath, thy, hadst, didst," indicate Wordsworth's striving to recapture a lost past, for these words hardly fit with the ordinary language of men, as upheld and glorified by the Romantic poets.
Selected Poetry, William Wordsworth, Penguin, Ed: Nicholas Roe, 1992.
Romanticism: An Anthology, Duncan Wu, Blackwell, 2000.