The Weight of Liberty in Wordsworth’s “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.

William Wordsworth

The post-Cartesian world of the early-19th century, rapidly advancing technologically, politically, and socially, found itself by this time in an uncertain place. America had achieved its independence less than thirty years before, the French revolution was a mere decade in the past, its reverberations yet echoing, and England was a place of both unprecedented scientific progress and yet internal political, and human uncertainty. What was this strange new world to look like? A mass of inhuman, unnatural factories, their ceaseless clamor echoing all night long to drown out the call of the bird — and the voice of the human individual? Or is there any place for humanity, for beauty, for contentment? Was peace even possible, worried the Romantic poets amidst the tempestuous moods of the peoples of an increasingly loud and complicated world?

English poet William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convents’ Narrow Room” attempts to provide an answer to this clamorous confusion by a poem commenting on the very art form of the sonnet itself. To Wordsworth, poetry, and particularly a carefully restricted form like that of the sonnet, ultimately produce an ordering, calming, and relaxing effect on the poet and his thoughts. However, because Wordsworth argues for a conclusion about poetry by way of examples and images taken from nature and human occupations extends his argument towards providing a broader solution for turmoil and confusion in the modern world more generally. The restriction of a sonnet’s poetic form is a limitation willed and chosen by the poet, which leads to a calming and relaxing mood or as Wordsworth calls it, solace by being “bound / Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.” In just this same way, a willed adherence to the demands of nature, tradition, and one’s vocation is to Wordsworth the key to peace in life more broadly against the seeming freedom of the modern world that only leads to confusion and dissatisfaction, a crushing “weight of liberty” (Wordsworth, Ln. 13).

Wordsworth begins his sonnet, by describing various human employments and natural activities that share in their association with and engendering of contentment. “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room” (1) he opens. Nuns are not concerned with physical constraint, he observes. Thus also hermits are likewise “contented with their cells,” (2) their chosen places of solitude. Their confinement is different than the nun’s. It is the product merely of a continuing and persistent will to continue by a tradition of action that they stay. They make no pledge to a community, to others, to a particular location, as the nun does, but each in their own way is content because they have willed to be what they are, they have willed to be restricted to a set lifestyle, guided by a tradition of the ages.

So also, further, we see Wordsworth’s next example, of “students” being contented “with their pensive citadels” (3) as a further extrapolation of willed confinement, willed restriction, and willed limitation. Wordsworth yet continues to offer examples, this time of practical, utilitarian tasks and those who perform them. Both the “Maids at the wheel” and the “weaver at his loom” will “Sit blithe and happy”(3-4)  in their occupations. Likewise as in man, so also it is in nature. Even as “bees that soar for bloom” will range as “High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells” (5-6), a high mountainous region in central England, they are yet content and “Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells” (7), that is, to sit and remain, calm and composed, within the enclosure of a flower.

Wordsworth, having thus used seven lines to pile example on top of example of contentment in mankind and nature, thus uses the remaining seven lines of his sonnet to outline a lesson on the benefit of poetry, and more broadly, finding contentment in and from limitation. Interestingly, this divides the poem in a novel way for a sonnet, with two sections of seven lines each, unlike the divisions of eight and six lines, Petrarchan, or twelve and two, Shakespearean. Thus even as the poem is about restricting oneself to a given form or natural limitation, Wordsworth has actually paradoxically or ironically transcended the very limitation of traditional forms in presenting his argument for doing so. The sonnet form remains as a constraint that gives an order to the author’s thoughts, but it is not an all-consuming force drowning out his creativity. Assumed limitation, Wordsworth here argues, however, is not really a prison or limitation. Our willed choice to submit to nature is, in essence, freedom. “In truth the prison, into which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is,” (8-9) he says. The limitation provided by being bound “Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground” (10-11) is where solace is found.

Wordsworth thus aims to show us that it is the rejection of limitation, that, while seemingly giving liberty, actually paradoxically leads to confusion, sorrow, and trouble. Just as seen in the French Revolution, only a few years before this poem, liberty, opposition to systems and customs seen as oppressive, and removing any bounds at all placed on the will’s desires, seems at first seemed to be the solution for all of man’s miseries and woes. But a will that is not bounded by nature or tradition results in practice in tremendous actual oppression, a “weight of too much liberty” (13) as evidenced in the bloody truth evident in any serious look at the French Revolution or similar movements. There, wills that had chosen to throw off restrictions, accepting no custom, nature, or limitation led to a world of dissatisfaction, fretting, and anxious, eventually violent activity. Take off the “weight of too much liberty” (13), Wordsworth thus asks us by the example of his poem. Take off the willed desire to be bound by no constraint. Put on the constraints of nature, tradition, and form, and you will be content, and find solace.