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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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