Nuns Fret Not: Wordsworth’s Freedom Within Form

I’ve always enjoyed poetry.

I love the pleasure of discovering a clever rhyme, the way words can be woven together, the way the form lends itself to certain topics, and especially the way a poem can convey something familiar in a strikingly new way. A good deal of modern poetry is written is what’s commonly known as free verse, where a poem may be uniquely structured (or not at all) in order to focus the reader on the images and emotions being portrayed. There appears to be somewhat of a push towards originality, breaking free of the confines of structured verse.

In the last few years, however, I’ve come to have a great appreciation for these more structured poems, and especially how that structure can subtly — and beautifully — add to the overall meaning. A particularly good example is William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” which runs as follows:

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.

This is essentially a poem about the sonnet form itself. It employs a list of metaphors to describe how self-inflicted confinement — in this case writing within the structure of a sonnet — is not necessarily restricting, nor does it deprive one of happiness. More broadly, Wordsworth is writing about ability to pursue freedom and liberty without having to explore beyond a set of established boundaries; in his works, the sonnet has a “status as an imaginative space” (O’Neill 186). Writing on freedom is relatively common for Wordsworth, but “[his] most famous poems on liberty, and perhaps his best, accepted the bounds of the sonnet” (Woodring 1037-8). Wordsworth obviously uses imagery to communicate this idea, but he also plays with other aspects of the sonnet to subtly further his point in many instances. I’d like to illustrate a little more how Wordsworth explores the idea of freedom within structure by looking at his use of metrical variation, his refined application of the stanzaic formula of an Italian sonnet, and his skill with rhyme and diction throughout the poem.

Okay, I realize that was a lot of jargon, and I’m afraid there will be a bit more coming… So before we get into the meat of things, here’s a wee glossary of some terms. Brace yourself for super quick Poetry 101.

  • Foot — a basic unit of measurement in poetry (but not the 12 inches kind, haha. I’ll be here for the rest of this post). A foot is a pattern of two or three stressed and unstressed syllables that is repeated over and over to make up a poetic metre. Some times a poet will substitute one type of foot for another in a line, without sacrificing the overall metre. These are the six main types of feet.
    • Iamb – unstressed, stressed (de dum)
    • Trochee – stressed, unstressed (dum de)
    • Anapest – unstressed, unstressed, stressed (de de dum)
    • Dactyl – stressed, unstressed, unstressed (dum de de)
    • Pyrrhic – unstressed, unstressed (de de)
    • Spondee – stressed, stressed (dum dum)
  • Metre — essentially, metre is determined by how many feet make up a line. The dreaded iambic pentameter that probably brings up faint memories from learning about Shakespeare or sonnets just means that there are five iambs per line (10 syllables total in a line).
  • Rhyme Scheme — a way of explaining the pattern of rhymes in a poem. If a poem has an ABABCC rhyme scheme, it means that line one rhymes with three, line two rhymes with four, and lines five and six rhyme. The rhyme scheme of “Nuns Fret Not” is ABBA ABBA CDDCCD.
  • Quatrain — four lines of poetry
  • Sestet — six lines of poetry
  • Octave — eight lines of poetry
  • Enjambment — a sentence runs past the end of one line and into the next line without any punctuation. If there is punctuation at the end of a line, it is end-stopped.
  • Caesura — a break or pause in the middle of a line of poetry, marked by any sort of punctuation.

Well, hopefully I haven’t scared you off… I promise that if you can follow along it’s worth your while: Wordsworth is genius, and this poem is fascinating!

So, there are four key places in “Nuns Fret Not” where Wordsworth demonstrates freedom within the restrictions of iambic pentameter, and the first is actually in the first three words! According to the natural rhythm of the sentence, stress should be placed on “nuns” and “not,” even though an iambic metre should make those same words unstressed. And to turn the rhythm back to iambic pentameter, Wordsworth inserts an anapest for the third foot. When reading this out loud, it actually feels confusing to say — we’re not sure where the stresses should go. But this initial ambiguity of rhythm is actually quite fitting. Wordsworth is demonstrating how much room and flexibility exists within the confines of just one line of iambic pentameter; the line still has the correct number of syllables (ten), but he has slightly rearranged the rhythm, allowing for metrical flexibility at the beginning of the line while still finishing it with a decided iambic rhythm. Although it might be daunting to a reader to not have an immediately clear metre in the first few words, the words themselves put the reader at ease: there is no need to fret. According to critic Daniel Robinson, “Wordsworth frequently uses the image of the narrow room to describe the sonnet form and to show how comfortable he is in it” (Robinson 33). In this case, Wordsworth demonstrates this comfortability not only in the image he creates, but with the metre as well.

Wordsworth plays a similar trick with the metre in line thirteen: “Who have felt the weight of too much liberty.” Instead of an iamb in the first foot, he uses an anapest; however, this anapest does not flow nearly as well as the anapest in the third foot of line one. The effect of ‘h’ and ‘f’ sounds at the beginning of each syllable of the anapest drags the line down, making it feel clumsy and heavy. It seems odd that Wordsworth should stumble on his rhythm here after making it flow beautifully up to this point; he has even added an extra syllable to the line for total of eleven, instead of the customary ten. He almost seems to include a pyrrhic as well in the same line on the word “liberty,” since it is difficult to emphasize the last syllable, as an iamb would require. However, Wordsworth uses the awkwardness of this rebel anapest and semi-pyrrhic to illustrate his point within the sentence: too much liberty can actually be a burden! His freedom with the rhythm in this line causes it to be heavy and clunky, and makes it difficult to say. However, this causes a sharp contrast with the final line of the sonnet which settles back into a perfect iambic metre (“Should find brief solace there, as I have found”), providing relief for the reader, who gladly falls back into the regular rhythm. This truly is “brief solace” since it is the last line of the poem, but Wordsworth successfully manages to use metre simultaneously alongside the actual words to prove his point (Wordsworth 14).

A third instance of an important deviance from the established rhythm of the sonnet is in line four: “Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom.” In this line, Wordsworth is describing two different activities that are very structured in terms of their processes and their movements — spinning and weaving — and he manages to mimic the movements of each in the poem’s metre. The phrase “Maids at the wheel” is metrically a trochee followed by an iamb (emphasis on “Maids” instead of “at”), or two unstressed syllables between two stressed syllables. The ultimate effect of this is that when spoken, the voice starts at a high intonation, then drops to a lower one for the two unstressed syllables, and finally comes up again with the word “wheel.” If drawn visually, this would make an inverted arc, as if beginning to trace the shape of a circle. Thus, Wordsworth is literally mimicking the motion of a wheel with the metre of these feet! In the second half of the line, he returns to iambic pentameter for the image of a weaver. The pattern of threads on a loom is a constant “under, over, under, over, under” motion: exactly the same as the “unstressed, stressed, unstressed, stressed” rhythm of iambic metre. Wordsworth describes the spinning wheel and the loom with his metre as well as his words, once again demonstrating the freedom and beauty within structure.

Wordsworth’s final clever instance of deviating from metre to illustrate his point and sharpen his images comes in line six: “High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells.” The first foot of this line is a trochee substitution, with the stress falling on “high” instead of “as.” Similar to “Maids at the wheel,” “High as the highest” has two unstressed syllables between two stressed syllables. In this case, the voice is highest in pitch on the two syllables that have the word “high.” Furthermore, the stresses throughout the rest of the line fall on the words “peak” and “fells” as well. Wordsworth has worked within the metre so that the stresses fall on all the words referring to mountains or height. When speaking the line, the reader’s voice naturally begins to lilt, leaping from stress to stress as though jumping from mountain peak to mountain peak. The use of ‘f’ and ‘h’ sounds on “high,” “highest,” “Furness,” and “Fells,” as well as the long vowels in “high,” “highest,” and “peak,” forces the voice to linger slightly longer on these words, thereby emphasizing the difference in intonation between the unstressed and stressed syllables. Wordsworth is able both to tweak metre and accentuate it to his advantage, clearly demonstrating that even a metre as steady as iambic pentameter is not an inhibitor to creativity in a poem.

Wordsworth plays with more than simply the metre, however; he also takes liberties within the boundaries of the form of a sonnet itself. Judging by rhyme scheme alone, “Nuns Fret Not” is a decidedly Petrarchan (a.k.a. Italian) sonnet. The first two quatrains follow a perfect ABBA rhyme, the very pattern of which shows the B rhyme confined between two A rhymes. Wordsworth deviates from, yet improves upon, the rhyme scheme in his final sestet. The sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet typically follows a CDCDCD or CDECDE pattern, but here Wordsworth uses an atypical CDDCCD pattern. Though at first this may seem nonsensical, Wordsworth is actually being incredibly clever. He has merely condensed two quatrains into six lines instead of eight, with a CDDC quatrain overlapping a DCCD quatrain. It is no coincidence that the line concerning “the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground” falls among the lines that overlap. Wordsworth recognizes the limited length of the form, but still manages to comfortably fit two Petrarchan quatrains into six lines. Rather than attempting to escape the boundaries of a Sonnet, he masterfully elaborates on them, perfectly illustrating the freedom within the confines of structure.

Wordsworth also manipulates the Sonnet’s form in a second way, with the help of enjambment. A typical Petrarchan Sonnet has two main ideas encapsulated in the two beginning quatrains, and then after the eighth line a third idea is introduced that elaborates a little more on the first two and provides a conclusion in the sestet. Wordsworth loosely keeps to this structure, but he doesn’t quite follow it to the letter. He does not complete the first idea, that of different people confined to different places, until halfway through line five. The second idea, of bees being content to sit inside of flowers for hours, is completed at the end of line seven instead of the end of line eight. Where the largest break in the flow of the poem should be — between lines eight and nine — Wordsworth chooses instead to enjamb his sentence, effectively connecting the octave and sestet as closely as possible. It is fitting that Wordsworth chooses to break free of the confines of the octave and spill into the sestet and make the sonnet his own while he speaks of confining himself.

This brings out another part of the genius of “Nuns Fret Not”: the way in which Wordsworth uses line endings. The first three lines are strongly end-stopped with semicolons, and are all independent ideas, each confined to a line and tightly restricted by structure. The next three lines are end-stopped as well, but less strongly, using commas instead of semicolons, as Wordsworth begins to push against such strict boundaries. He also introduces two caesuras in lines four and five; the first is weaker, timidly beginning to play with the sonnet’s structure, and the next is a strong semicolon as he gains more confidence, not only placing a break mid-line but even placing it mid-foot. He returns to the original strong end-stop with a colon at the end of line seven, but then launches into a complete break of any rigid structure by introducing enjambed lines, caesuras, and even brackets. The first enjambed sentence that runs over lines eight and nine captures the entire point of this rebellion, stating that “In truth the prison, into which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is.” Although initially it seems that Wordsworth is confined by and submits to the rules of the sonnet, he continually stretches and modifies them, making it clear that he is truly the one in control.

Finally, it is well worth noting that Wordsworth even uses his rhymes to explore the concept of freedom within confinement. J. Miller, in his discussion of Wordsworth’s poetic form, states:

As the metaphors employed in the two sonnets on sonnets suggest, Wordsworth saw the small size and rigid laws of the sonnet as paradoxically allowing for one kind of largeness or another. In “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room,” the sonnet is compared to the nun’s small room, to the hermit’s cell, and to the student’s “citadel.” All these are enclosures making possible an expansiveness of meditation or speculation, a concern with first and last things. (Miller 300).

Miller points out the aptness of Wordsworth’s imagery in the first few lines of the poem, highlighting how everything is focused on the large capacity within a small space. However, Wordsworth demonstrates this on an even smaller scale than the structure of the sonnet itself: he illustrates it in the poem’s very rhyme scheme. One example of this is in line thirteen, where instead of choosing another one-syllable word to rhyme with “me” and “be,” he takes the liberty, quite literally, of rhyming them with a three-syllable word. A far more complex example, however, is in the first rhyming couplet of “cells” with “citadels” in lines two and three. The only part of the word “citadel” that rhymes with “cell” is the last syllable, but a closer look at the two words reveals that “citadel” is the word “cell” with several extra letters inserted in the middle. The beginning and end of both words are the same, just like a cell and a citadel ultimately both have walls and keep people in; but just as a citadel is much larger than a cell, so the word expands the same way.

The second instance of Wordsworth using rhyme scheme and diction to illustrate freedom within boundaries is in the rhyming couplet of “loom” and “bloom” in lines four and five. These two concepts on their own are packed with imagery. A loom is a manmade object, very structured and ordered, and yet it creates beautiful cloth and tapestries. A bloom, while completely natural, is intricately structured as well. However, it pushes its boundaries and expands past its confines to become something beautiful. The word “bloom” is literally an expansion of the word “loom”; Wordsworth develops the concept at the same time as he develops his diction. This is an interesting progression of imagery, but logical when considering Woodring’s note that “[n]atural images for freedom and independence, of much greater interest than the generally more conventional images for bondage, brighten Wordsworth’s poetry like emerging stars. Often he elicits his image from a solitary plant or animal” (Woodring 1043). In this case, the image of a flower is a pleasantly fresh one after a series of dark rooms and complex, manmade machines. All this serves to further the idea of freedom and space within confines and boundaries.

Having explored just a few examples of how structure can contribute to a poem’s meaning, I’ll leave you to read “Nuns Fret Not” again. If you’re alone (or the type of person who doesn’t get embarrassed easily), I’d encourage you to even read it out loud. Relish not only the imagery, but also take in the sounds of the words, the taste of the rhythmic variance, and the cadences of rhymes and structure. Enjoy it. Dwell on the ideas of liberty within confinement, freedom within order, growth within structure. And all this from showing that the sonnet’s rigid form, so different from modern free verse, is not ultimately the master of the poet if the poet is the master of the sonnet.

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Works Cited

Miller, J. Hillis. “The Still Heart: Poetic Form in Wordsworth.” New Literary History, vol. 2, no. 2, 1971, pp. 297–310., www.jstor.org/stable/468604.

O’Neill, Michael. “The Romantic sonnet.” The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet. Ed. A.D. Cousins and Peter Howarth. New York: Cambridge UP, 2011. 185-203.

Robinson, Daniel. William Wordsworth’s Poetry. Great Britain: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010.

Woodring, Carl R. “On Liberty in the Poetry of Wordsworth.” PMLA, vol. 70, no. 5, 1955, pp. 1033–1048., www.jstor.org/stable/459884.

Wordsworth, William. “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Shorter 5th ed. Ed. Margaret Ferguson, et al. New York: Norton, 2005. 478.

One thought on “Nuns Fret Not: Wordsworth’s Freedom Within Form

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