William Wordsworth 

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 Poems in Two Volumes (1807, 37)


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 dells:
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.

Furness Fells : Pigot’s Directory for Lancashire (1828) has the following entry ‘the surrounding country is very mountainous, and abounds with the minerals peculiar to the Furness fells: the air is salubrious, and the Inhabitants famed for their longevity; in evidence of which, a stone in the churchyard is shewn, under which repose the remains of seven members of the same family, whose ages were, at their decease, 78, 80, 84, 92, 94 101 and 104 years’.

Sonnets are generally composed of fourteen lines, broken thematically, or at least with punctuation, at the end of the eighth line to form an octet and a sestet. Wordsworth clearly breaks this rule here with an enjambment between lines eight and nine, amusingly, because he is writing about the 'prison' of the sonnet form, consciously breaking out of that prison as he does so. The only other irregularity in the sonnet comes with the eleven syllables in line thirteen, where the 'weight of too much liberty' spreads itself in ungainly fashion over the line. Clearly it is something that the poet has been able to carry only with difficulty.

The poem is otherwise a pleasant example of the sonnet form which expresses a neat, somewhat paradoxical conceit: the fact that we can find a sort of freedom in self-imposed discipline. We ignore the obvious objection that nuns do in fact fret at their convent's narrow room, students get tired of their studies, maids of their wheels, and weavers of their looms. Whether bees get fed up with humming we leave to the discerning reader to fathom.

The poem as a whole gives no great insight into the process of composition, but there is clearly a fascination with rigid forms for Wordsworth, though he expresses this rather negatively himself, as 'brief solace'. One asks brief solace from what? Life? The difficulties of more arduous forms of poetry? We do not know, but we might speculate that the huge burden imposed upon him by Samuel Taylor Coleridge of composing the poem to end all poems was perhaps part of the answer.

Famously, Milton was in his forties when he started composing his epic poem Paradise Lost and nearly sixty before it was published. Coleridge writes:

Observe the march of Milton - his severe application, his laborious polish, his deep metaphysical researches, his prayers to God before he began his great poem, all that could lift and swell his intellect, became his daily food. I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an epic poem. Ten to collect the materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine - then the mind of man - then the minds of men in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years - the next five to the composition of the poem - and the last five to the correction of it. So I would write haply not unhearing of that divine and rightly-whispering Voice, which speaks to mighty minds of redestined Garlands, starry and unwithering.

This was the example that Coleridge encouraged Wordsworth to follow. No wonder that once or twice he needed a day off to write a sonnet or two.

Wordsworth himself writes:

In the cottage of Town End one afternoon in 1802, my Sister read to me the Sonnets of Milton. I had long been well acquainted with them, but I was particularly struck on that occasion by the dignified simplicity and majestic harmony that runs through most of them - in character so totally different from the Italian, and still more so from Shakespeare's fine Sonnets. I took fire, if I may be allowed to say so, and produced three Sonnets the same afternoon .

But in a letter of 20 April 1822, he laments having written so many Sonnets when he 'might easily have been better employed'.


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