A reading of a classic Wordsworth sonnet
‘Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room’ is the title often given to the sonnet by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) which has this as its opening line. The poem is an argument about the usefulness of the sonnet as a means of poetic expression, and a rejection of the idea that the sonnet’s formal restrictions place undesirable limitations upon what the poet can do with the sonnet form. Here is ‘Nuns Fret Not’ (as we will refer to it) along with some notes towards an analysis of it.
Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels;
Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom,
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
In summary, Wordsworth argues that many people, and other living creatures, in the world are happy with a small space in which to work: ‘Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room’ because a small room is all a nun needs for the worship of God, and the same goes for hermits who indeed choose to shut themselves away from the wider world outside. Students are happy to sit in their rooms at university (the grandness of ‘Citadels’ perhaps calling to mind the grandeur of the colleges at Oxford, or indeed Cambridge where Wordsworth himself studied), deep in thought.
Similarly, many young women sit and work at the spinning wheel, and weavers at their loom, and are happy and carefree. Even bees, which fly all over the place to collect nectar, will happily spend an hour by one particular flower sometimes.
In short, Wordsworth goes on to say, broadening out his point from these specific examples, what is often viewed as a ‘prison’, a space which restricts us, is actually no prison at all in Wordsworth’s analysis. The ‘Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground’ was a happy place for Wordsworth the poet to be ‘bound’, the implication being that a bit of structure and order was a good thing for a young poet. It taught him restraint and organisation. Wordsworth says that the sonnet is a good poetic form for those who ‘have felt the weight of too much liberty’.
Does he mean poetic liberty here – e.g. the expansiveness of something like unrhymed blank verse with no set length – or liberty more generally? Is this Wordsworth the conservative calling for order and restraint, a Romantic poet endorsing the ‘classical’ view of art as one of orderliness and limitation? It’s difficult to tell, though either way it’s noteworthy that Wordsworth says that the sonnet can provide only ‘brief solace’, the implication being that it’s not enough by itself. But every now and then, it can offer something rich and satisfying, by virtue of – and not in spite of – its formal limitations.
And what are the sonnet’s formal limitations? ‘Nuns Fret Not’ is arranged in the form of a traditional Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, rhymed abbaabbacddccd. And yet it’s significant that Wordsworth slightly breaks with the strictures of the Italian sonnet, where the volta or ‘turn’ usually comes at the end of the eighth line and at the beginning of the ninth (the ‘turn’ of a sonnet is where the poet’s argument changes direction). Here is the eighth line and the first half of the ninth line of Wordsworth’s sonnet:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is:
So the ‘turn’ comes really the beginning of the eighth line, when Wordsworth signals his move from specific examples of happiness among small spaces to a general analysis of the sonnet’s virtues, rather than at the end of line eight as we might expect. This little departure from the conventions of the Petrarchan sonnet suggests that the sonnet, whilst restricted in numerous ways, allows for the poet to innovate and put their own stamp on the form. Within regularity and form we can nevertheless make room for expansiveness, a point Wordsworth also makes through his choice of rhymes.
Note how ‘Citadels’ does not merely rhyme with ‘Cells’, but represents an expansion of it: ‘Cells’ becomes ‘Citadels’, and suddenly a small room is a whole castle. Similarly, ‘Loom’ blooms into life in ‘Bloom’, going from a manmade object associated with weaving (weaving pointing up an implicit, and common, metaphor for writing) to the natural life of growth and expansion found amongst nature.
‘Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room’ is a fine example of a poem that makes its argument not just through what it says, but through how it says it – in this case, using the very poetic form, that of the sonnet, which Wordsworth wants to praise.
Image: Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Haydon, 1842; via Wikimedia Commons.