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Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room
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.
Corinna Laughlin's commentary
This week, we’re reading a classic sonnet by William Wordsworth – “Nuns fret not.” This poem by Wordsworth reflects his lifelong fascination with all things Catholic, and with the sonnet form. Like other sonnets—including Countee Cullen’s “Yet do I marvel,” which we read last month—this poem consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Wordsworth’s poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, which falls into two sections—octet and sestet, eight lines followed by six lines.
The poem begins with a series of images, all of which are linked by one concept—“narrow rooms.” “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room.” Cloistered nuns are confined to a small space, but somehow they do not “fret” or complain about it. Hermits, too, occupy their small “cells” or rooms quite contentedly. Others, too, seem to be happy in small spaces: students are happy to study in their “pensive citadels,” their rooms (or perhaps their minds!). Working people can find that same contentment at their work: women spinning, weavers weaving are “blithe and happy” even though these tasks can be confining, keeping them in one place for hours.
Nor is this sense of delight limited to human beings: “bees that soar for bloom, / High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells, / Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells.” Bees have a vast range of motion—they are free to explore the highest peaks of the Lake District if they want to. And yet these same bees choose to “murmur by the hour” in a tiny space, “in foxglove bells.”
To the outside observer, all of these settings—the cloistered convent, the cell of a hermit, the study or workroom—can seem confining, oppressive—prison-like. But, Wordsworth says at the turning point of the poem, “the prison, into which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is.” These freely chosen “prisons” are a source of delight for those who occupy them.
For Wordsworth, of course, his chosen “prison” is the sonnet form itself. Wordsworth wrote some very long poems. (His autobiographical poem The Prelude is 8,000 lines!) But in some moods, he says, it was “pastime to be bound / Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.” The very limitations of the sonnet form—fourteen lines, and no more—were a solace and a relief to him. For writers, and readers, who have “felt the weight of too much liberty,” the self-imposed boundaries of the sonnet form give comfort, structure, delight—and even a different kind of freedom.
This sonnet is about sonnets, but to me it’s also an appropriate poem for these early days of Lent. In a way, Lent is like that “narrow room” of the convent. Today, the Church imposes few restrictions—just a few days of fast and abstinence. The rest is left to us. Each of us must choose for ourselves what we will give up, and what we will take on, and how we will keep the Lenten season.
In spite of—or perhaps because of—its limitations, I think most of us welcome Lent. We too have felt what Wordsworth calls “the weight of too much liberty”—too many options, too many claims on our attention and time. We need a season of simplicity. Lent is not a punishment, not is it a prison—like the “narrow room” of the convent, it is a smaller space we choose, in order to renew our focus on what matters the most. Kept in this way, Lent can truly be a “blithe and happy” time.



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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