Periodic Poetry: Wordsworth

England, 1802, was a pale imitation of the protectorate of Milton’s day. Pitt the Younger was a reactionary, who threw his influence with the king against the French Revolution — but he was not Charles I. He was now gone. Addington ended the war against France, something Pitt was unlikely to have done, but he was not the Commonwealth sweeping away tyranny; he had been hand-picked by Pitt, in fact. He didn’t even get rid of the income tax, that tool of oppression designed to finance the war of reaction. Bonaparte might have been Cromwell. True, he was not a regicide, but Bonaparte was at least Cromwell’s match as a general. And just as Cromwell had dissolved Parliament when it proved insufficiently reliable to guarantee the freedoms Cromwell had fought for; Bonaparte had been drifting further to the right; in 1802 he would restore handing out aristocratic distinctions and reinstate slavery in Hayti; by the end of the year he would be Napoleon, First Consul for Life. The people of England were again clamoring for war against the Republic, in a short time the jubilation of the preliminary treaty was converted into misgivings about the treaty . With war would come the inevitable repression of civil liberties that England thought it was rid of with Pitt.

But Pitt was not making a precise comparison between 1802 and Milton’s day. He was pointing out that England had lost the belief in political self-actualizing that Milton championed in the days he was defender of the Commonwealth. England had so far lost its thirst for freedom that it had fought a bloody and expensive war to prevent it to others. And now in the midst of  respite, when blood and treasure was not leaking down the hole to chase Republicans around Europe, Egypt and the Lavant, there was talking of breaking the treaty. England was no doubt a fen, a wasteland that only sedge and grass would grow in. Wordworth’s would draw upon Milton again when he wrote The Prelude. That would be a different Milton just as it was a different Wordsworth. Wordworth’s hope for a world revolutionized like France was in 1789 would be gone then; just as Milton had to contemplate his own values after the restoration. And therefore Wordsworth would draw from Paradise Lost. In 1802, however, he was seeking the earlier Milton, the one who energized England when it used to seek social justice.

England, 1802

from Poems (1807)

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;
O 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.

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