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Subject, Aspects of Interest, and Effect of William Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not"

by Ngoc Nguyen

“Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room”
by William Wordsworth


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.


William Wordsworth's poem expresses the viewpoint that a verse form such as the sonnet does not have to be a “prison” or space that is confining or restricting. On the contrary, the sonnet can be a source of solace and support from “the weight of too much liberty.” Wordsworth goes on to say, “In truth the prison unto 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.” Wordsworth in the opening lines of his sonnet compares himself to nuns, hermits, students, maids, and weavers who are happy with their limited spaces: “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.”

Wordsworth's sonnet is very interesting primarily because it is a Petrarchan sonnet. Furthermore, Wordsworth has a reputation in the English canon of literature and verse for being an outstanding poet, who, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped established romanticism in England and was poet laureate from 1843 to 1850. What is indeed ironic and remarkable about Wordsworth's view that “[within] the sonnet's scanty plot of ground” one can find comfort and consolation—as well as freedom—from the encumbering and burdensome weight and responsibility of too much liberty and license is that it is unique and unexpected because most people consider the sonnet a very difficult form to write in, much less to master. However, some poets do actually prefer and enjoy composing their own sonnets, for they find the form challenging and extremely gratifying to work with and to express their own emotions in. For truly serious poets—amateur and professional—the sonnet is a historically rich form very much worth the time and creative effort to master. Moreover, what poet can argue with being in the company of the likes of Petrarch, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and many other accomplished poets of Western literature whenever he or she attempts to compose a sonnet in emulation of these giants of poetry and verse?

The effect of Wordsworth's sonnet on the reader is both enlightening and memorable. It is in essence a sonnet about a sonnet and its paradoxical ability and power to confer momentary solace, comfort, and contentment to those who creatively choose to inhabit its poetic four “walls,” so to speak, and/or confines. In any case, the argument can be made that every poet and artist—and every human being—makes his or her home somewhere in the figurative sense of the word. That is, every person lives within the four “walls” of their own choosing. It is merely a question of which kind or type of immurement that each individual chooses to make their home—whether it is permanent or temporary, actual or imaginary, emotional or intellectual, religious or secular, or even spiritual or material. In conclusion, literary scholars, academics, poets, students (of poetry), and readers all can suppose—in this sense—that not unlike Wordsworth, they all before have occasionally made the sonnet their humble home and abode (in their poetry readings) and therefore lyrically and intellectually amused themselves “[within] the sonnet's scanty plot of ground.”