Can you find solace in a sonnet?

Professor Jonathan Bate and Dr Paula Byrne are lead educators on The University of Warwick’s free online course “Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing”. In this post, they invite you to read a sonnet by Wordsworth and see if you can find solace in its regular form.

Can you find solace in a sonnet?

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is one of the greatest meditative poets in the English language. People have often turned to his words in difficult times; the philosopher John Stuart Mill went so far as to say that it was reading Wordsworth’s poetry that gave him “relief from one of my longest relapses into depression”.

 

Wordsworth offered the sonnet as a form of solace

One of Wordsworth’s favourite literary forms was the sonnet: 14 lines of verse, with a strict rhyme scheme. A particularly good example is his sonnet “Nuns fret not”, which you can read below. This sonnet is partly about how the discipline of writing and reading sonnets is itself a form of “solace”.

Nuns fret not

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 (1770-1850)

Reflect and respond

Read the poem again, and as you do so, reflect on the questions below. You can share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of this post.

  • What do you think Wordsworth means by “In truth the prison, into which we doom ourselves, is no prison”?
  • Do you find something recognisable, from your own experience, in Wordsworth’s phrase “the weight of too much liberty”?
  • Do you share Wordsworth’s discovery that the sonnet’s brevity and strict form brings inner harmony and “solace”?
  • Do you know, or can you find out, the formal difference between a “Petrarchan” and a “Shakespearean” sonnet? Which type is this one?

If this activity has made you think more about the relationship between reading and wellbeing, join the free online course “Literature and Mental Health” from the University of Warwick. The course begins on 1 February 2016.

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Comments (637)

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  • lieke

    1. ‘In truth the prison, into which we doom ourselves, no prison is’. I think this means that we often find ourselves prisoned by our own thoughts and perception of things. It also could refer to, as already mentioned, the form of the sonnet, which gave Wordsworth a clear frame. I think the poem could be read as a plea for a certain simpleness and oversight in a complex world.
    2. Yes, i experience ‘the weigth of too much liberty’ on an almost daily basis, in this ‘modern world’ with its overwhelming amount of possibilities and a strong believe in the idea that almost everything is achievable. It often makes me feel restless and wavering or indecisive.
    3. Yes, i do share that. I feel comforted by the rhyme and rhythm, it somehow calmes me down.
    4. Considering the rhyme schedule, this is a Petrarchan sonnet. The difference between the two can be find in both rhyme scheme and structure i quess: an eight line stanza and a six line stanza (Petrarchan) versus three quatrains and a concluding couplet (Shakespearan).

  • Ylenia

    I once read that habits are the architecture of our life, therefore knowing exactly where you are suppsed to be or what you are supposed to do is a sort of rilief. The fact of being aware of what comes next is reassuring and umcertainity is in some ways painful. On the other hand I sometimes feel constricted as in prison when my life starts being too much regular and I need to look for something new. Not in private life but in my work life. However I can not imagine a life without some regularities because indeed the liberty means also uncertainty and above all that you have to count on yourself. Taking decisions on your own is a burden because there are no scheme to follow. Also the poet sometimes finds relief in the scheme of the sonnet.
    I also want to apologies if my English is not so perfect but is not my mother tongue and it sometimes takes a while to find the exact word….

  • miranda

    I confess, l had to look it up but this lovely sonnet is a Petrarchan Sonnet. It’s as soothing as a stroll in a summer garden full of the low buzz of bees and the smell of open blooms.
    Every adult must have felt the “weight of too much liberty” – who can say they have not longed to be a teenager again and not have any cares or major decisions to make. But as the classic Russian authors love to tell us- there is peace and harmony in our daily routines and getting on with things no matter how mundane- our daily lives are not prisons, routine is not a prison- it can calm and soothe.
    Loved this poem!

  • Dawn Petty Weber

    I agree with the insights shared by so many to date, and have been reflecting on how I can pull from this poem in my work with college students as an advisor. So often I see students who are overwhelmed with all the responsibilities of school and life. They look at a blank worksheet of all the requirements for earning a degree, and then the hundreds of classes available that can fulfill those requirements, (not to mention all of the extracurricular activities), and they become paralyzed by choice. To reduce anxiety and stress, we spend time breaking down the requirements into smaller chunks, term by term. And narrow down class choice by exploring genuine interests and skills. Much like finding solace in “the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground,” focusing on these smaller sets of class choices, and plannng for just 1-3 terms at a time is much more manageable and palpably reduces a student’s anxiety. I think the same can be said for most life situations outside of school as well, so these are important skills to learn early on.

  • Tatiana

    These quotes make us think about what we are doing in our lives: we have some duties that we are to do but we have the freedom of the necessity of doing them so as not to limit ourselves but to create something new.

  • Tatiana

    These quotes make us think about what we are doing in our life: all of us have some duties that we are to do but we are conscious of having the freedom of the necessity to do them so as not to limit ourselves but create something new.

  • Dominique Blin

    “The weight of too much liberty” seems to be an answer to “In truth the prison, into which we doom ourselves,no prison is : I understand that wordsworth, speaking to us, explains how much we need a frame, limits, schedule. If we want to feel free, the absolute liberty is unbearable even impossible.
    And the sonnet in its strict form has a frame and it is calming.
    And I will add that the way we read the sonnet, we reread and reread again brings harmony and comfort.

  • Sheila Houldin

    For me, the words about the prison seem to be suggesting that the poet feels that we should be content with our situation, it only becomes a prison if we make it so. Shades of mindfulness? Taken out of context the words could also be used to suggest that we can change any “prison” which we ourselves have created.
    “Too much liberty”, too much choice can be paralysing, liberty is having the freedom of choice, and having choice you have to take the decision and be responsible for its consequences. If we are constrained in our choices, or liberty, then we do not have to shoulder the responsibility. And if we can be happy with less liberty then we can be contented.
    I find the strict form satisfying in so far as it gives shape to the words and when read aloud is “easy” to follow and flows. That strict form does also suggest control of words and of the emotions. It creates harmony in the spoken word, I am not sure about solace, it’s comfortable.

    Having done a quick check I think this is Petrarchan, Shakespearean sonnets have a final couplet. The final couplet form can be very powerful, the emotions roused by the previous words reaching a conclusion that can be taken away.

  • Peg McCarthy

    Yes, there is solace in this sonnet, especially because I relate to the subject matter and find the form pleasing. “The prison into which we doom ourselves, no prison is” is the sonnet, the cell, the hermitage, the citadel, the bee’s flower,” all these things and more, because these structures are there so that we can focus, find contentment, and transcend the outward form. In letting go of too much outward liberty, by placing ourselves in these “prisons,” we find inward liberty.

  • Kate Roberts

    It seems the line “In truth the prison, into which we doom ourselves, no prison is:”, literally means writing in the confines of the sonnet form. WW found the firm structure of the sonnet liberating in that it gave him order and “brief solace”. I feel “the prison into which we doom ourselves” could also mean life and the way we choose to live our life. “The weight of too much liberty”, we have so much choice, so many decisions to make, so many relationships to manage, that I can understand the desire to be the hermit “contented with their cells”.
    “Nuns fret Not” is a Petrarchan sonnet, although from what I can tell WW does something different with his Sestet, having the rhyme cdd ccd. The Shakespearean sonnet looks to me to be more straightforward, having a final couplet that brings the sonnet to a firm conclusion.
    I think it’s a lovely sonnet, it’s gentle and it gives the reader permission to attempt a quieter, more contemplative lifestyle.

  • Geraldina Chacon

    What I believe is that Wordsworth, in this sonnet, and writing in particular about the form itself, is making reference to the limits that we need in order to get somewhere and achieve a “good life”, in order not to get lost.
    Because sometimes we think that the more liberty we enjoy in life, the better. But we certainly need paths, directions, limitations that, even if we sometimes feel them as obstacles, can help us in the achieving of tasks and the construction of a self.

    • Queen B

      I absolutely agree with you, 110%, hands down

      • Judith

        Yes my thoughts as well. I am not a reader of sonnets but felt the rhythms of this was calming.

  • Pamela Ann McKinnon

    My reflection on the first question posed, i.e. What do you think Wordsworth means by “In truth the prison, into which we doom ourselves, is no prison”? I would say that it we ourselves who through our imagination, decisions or social situation make a “prison” for ourselves. The first stanzas define the decisions made by the nub, hermit and others, as it is not just the area of the room in which they find themselves but the place within their own minds. They are limited therefore not by time or space but by themselves and their own thoughts and actions.Yes, I think that contentment can be found in the limitation of choice which these above mentioned have decided gives them solace and peace of mind in the great scheme of things. This is because too much choice and freedom/liberty can cause a certain chaos in ones decisions and situation as the feeling that one is compelled to try and test all the things that this new choice and social situation offers, and which does not necessarily give one any peace of solace in having experienced. I would think quite the opposite, and once one has stepped out of ones “cell” it becomes due to this added experience to return to ones previous state

  • Betty Workman

    I thought it to be a lovely poem about contentment brought about through the simple things in life. Each in their own way busy in the moment. The nuns and hermits finding contentment through prayer. The students finding contentment though study. The maids, the weaver and the bees are all hard at work on what could be considered mundane work, but each is doing the best that they can. The maid and the weaver producing good quality work and the bee the most wonderful honey. ‘In Truth the prison, into which we doom, is no prison” means I believe idealness and boredom can be a bigger problem than simple work. I think WW means “the weight of too much liberty” can be soul destroying. I think the rhythm and rhyme in this poem bring about the quality of peace because the poem is about thoughtful and productive engagement.

  • Pauline Alabaster

    I think Wordsworth was looking at the way we as individuals handle our lives. The choices we make can be considered prisons and we often speak of being trapped. Equally though if we have made a choice that we feel traps us we can also make a choice that untraps us and frees us from the “prison” that we are in. Reading this sonnet again after many years it surprises me just how relevant it is. We live in a society that offers us a bewildering amount of choice from TV channels to milk it is no wonder that sometimes we feel that if we had less choice things would be a lot simpler. I’m not sure that the brevity of the sonnet’s form is what gives me solace so much as the rhythms and metre and the overall flow. Poetry of all kinds always uplifts me and brings solace whenever I feel I need it.

  • Brian G

    3. No, as a creative, free spirit, I feel confined by the sonnet and long to break out. Even if I am terrified of the act of breaking out. Or maybe it is just that I was never a fan of sonnets.
    4. The main difference in the types of sonnets is the Rhyming Scheme. Petrarchan follows abbaabba octet and a sestet that should follow cdecde or cdcdcd. This one ends with cddccd, which is weird!

  • Brian G

    1. Interpreting this via the medium of painting, the most difficult of painting is the abstract. It sounds bizarre but the freer you are (lack of rules, form, colour theory) then the harder it is to paint. If you restrict yourself to say a landscape or a portrait then there are conventions and rules and these aid you in the creative process. It focuses the mind to what is needed. Free verse is certainly free, no rhyming convention, no structural form, plenty of choice. But creating such a poem involves a massive amount of creatorial energy spread over a greater area, so to speak. Having the energy ‘bound’ by the rules of a sonnet (Petrarchan in this case) provides a solid base and focus for the creative energy, thereby creating freedom that is manageable and ultimately freer than the ‘herding cats’ that is free verse.
    2. I recognise in this the main problem many people have with freedom of choice. We can be uncomfortable with such freedom because when things go wrong (as they can do) we have no one to blame but ourselves. When restricted by giving away such choice, allowing others to make the decisions, we at least can ‘blame’ someone else for our predicaments.

  • Roopa R

    What do you think Wordsworth means by “In truth the prison, into which we doom ourselves, is no prison”?
    Actually when a person is in doom and especially often when associated with guilt and anxiety, I think the *_payoff_* derived is getting juice out of one’s state (holding on to pleasure) which is the reason one doesn’t want to let go of the sticky situation. So to say one becomes comfortable in the uncomfortable situation.
    2. Do you find something recognisable, from your own experience, in Wordsworth’s phrase “the weight of too much liberty”
    Yes. The issue with too much liberty is that while it appears enviable, a *_mindful boundary_* is required to go hand in hand with it. Exploring outside one’s known boundary needs to be in tandem with one’s cultural beliefs. Liberty cannot be exploited, for then one has to eventually bear it’s consequences, which is being answerable to one’s own conscience.

    3. It’s true that the sonnet’s brevity and form brings solace to a lost mind. Form gives direction and brevity while removing the unnecessary extras, brings contentment. Form, solace and contentment bring in harmony.
    In this poem each one is doing what one is supposed to do.

  • Rachel Clark-Raee

    1) When Wordsworth talks about the prison “into which we doom ourselves”, to me that sounds like it means when we have made a decision to do something, we have given ourselves a purpose, then it doesn’t feel like it traps us
    2) The weight of too much liberty is then the opposite of this, when you feel rudderless and without purpose or meaning or direction. This is something I have felt when struggling with “creative” activities. I feel no deep purpose or passion in any decision, therefore they all impossible and restrictive.
    3) I find that the structure is relaxing, it forces you to slow down and listen to the rhythm, (almost like when you control your breathing to help manage anxiety symptoms). When poetry has strict form, I find that more soothing a lot of the time than free verse.
    4) A Shakespearean sonnet consists of 3 quatrains finished with a rhyming couplet (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG format). A Petrarchan sonnet is split into 8 and 6 lines (octave and tercet). This kind of sonnet has a different rhyming structure. Nuns fret not is a Petrarchan sonnet.

  • Giuseppina Galimberti

    The “prison” of nuns, eremits, students is a “chosen” place, the result of an act of freedom, so the poet is right when he says “In truth the prison, into which we doom 
Ourselves, no prison is”. In fact If they are chosen, limits can be a condition to feel more creative (without the weight of too much liberty) as Wordsworth feels in the closed frame of the sonnet.
    This is an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet with a slight variation.
    The English (Shakespearean) sonnet is composed of four quatrains (of four lines each) and a concluding couplet (two lines) while the Italian is composed of an octave and a sestet.
    I like the short forms in literature: sonnets, haiku, but also short stories. In their brevity you can find a particular intensity.

    • Roopa R

      I like the way you’re seeing things in this sonnet. Thank you.

      • Kevin

        I like this response. Thanks