‘Delicious drowsiness’ – John Keats on the importance of sleep…

Keats and sleep

The Moon & Sleep by Simeon Solomon

I have often written of the relevance of the poet John Keats to readers in the 21st century – in fact, I am publishing a collection of pieces on that theme (mainly drawn from this blog and those posts written for The Wordsworth Trust) shortly. So when I was sitting ruminating on my rather odd sleep patterns of late, who should I once again turn to? You’ve guessed it…

‘Delicious drowsiness’ is a comment made by Andrew Motion in his fabulous biography, Keats, where he discusses a sonnet – To Sleep –  written by the poet in April 1819 (a year in which his genius developed rapidly). It has always been a favourite of mine, as the language is, I think, delicious. Read it aloud, or under your breath and feel the words in your mouth, and on your lips…

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
      In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
      Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
      Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
      Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.


Technically Keats was working with, but not adhering strictly to, the Shakespearean sonnet form and the language used is gentle and the vowels long, creating that ‘delicious drowsiness’ Motion refers to. There is some debate about the meaning, and whether it refers to death, as well as or instead of, sleep. Certainly, the words ’embalmed’ and ‘casket’ can be suggestive of finality, as can the shutting of the eyes in the early lines;  the still recent death of his brother Tom was on Keats’s mind throughout that great year of poetry.  This sonnet can also be seen as reminiscent of some of the lines in Keats’s Ode to a Nightingaleparticularly  the sixth stanza:


Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.


Melancholy, but accepting of death; longing for a painless end, drifting off to the sound of the nightingale. Such is the end he would have wanted for his brother.
However, since my early teenage years and discovery of Keats as ‘my’ poet, I have always thought of this poem as a hymn to sleep as relief from anxiety and worry.  My lifelong struggles with anxiety (well documented on this blog) continue, so I cling to lines such as ‘Then save me, or the passed day will shine/Upon my pillow, breeding many woes’  and ‘Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole’ as indicative of Keats’s ability to describe an eternal truth. How many of us have not experienced at least one night when sleep won’t come, and all the worries of our world come marching in, magnified and determined to disrupt our rest still further? We thump our pillow in frustration, toss and turn and long for something that will help us nod off – whether it be a book, hot drink or a sleeping tablet (that poppy with its ‘lulling charities’).

Sleep and Keats

Sleeping in Poppy Field, E. J. HARRINGTON

The beginning of the poem, rather than a reference to death, makes me think of that wonderful sleep of childhood, when a story is told, the light is turned out, and some magic makes our eyelids heavy and ensures any worries disappear.
Sleep is a time for healing. Physically it is vital to our health and well-being. It can also offer us a brief respite from the concerns of everyday life. It can be a joyful feeling, shared in the arms of someone we love. Observing it in our children can be, outside that natural sense of relief at the peace we craved after a long day, a deeply moving experience, highlighting the innocence of the young, and their (hopefully) carefree existence.


But in To Sleep, it is the last line that has always sent a shiver down my spine – of pleasure rather than fear. Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards/And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul rival those other great lines in the second stanza of Nightingale…


O for a beaker full of the warm South,

         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
        And purple-stained mouth
and those in The Eve of St Agnes:


  And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
       In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
       While he forth from the closet brought a heap
       Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
       With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
       And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;


… for their sheer sensuousness, and the pleasure they offer the reader willing to speak them aloud (in private if you must!). Don’t you agree? Have you others to rival these?
There are a number of memorable descriptions of sleep, or the longing for it, in Keats’s poetry and it is, I think, something we would all do well to turn to at times when our own conscience ‘burrows’, like that mole, under our mattresses and denies us that longed for unconsciousness.
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4 Responses to ‘Delicious drowsiness’ – John Keats on the importance of sleep…

  1. Thank you Suzie, I really enjoyed this… how utterly gorgeous Keats is!

  2. Tit is true that Keats uses sleep in this way but the question, as it seems to me, is not so much one of sleep but of indolence. Keats often elides the two. The image of Keats as a sweet young Adonis with curly hair half drowsy in a patch of daisies is starkly wrong. His idea of creativity is closely linked to his idea of sleep and indolence. Great poetry comes easily ‘in full-throated ease’ not after an expense of effort.

    Keats was early taken up by Hunt who, as a young man might, he much admired. But he seeon began to see Hunt’s love of the ‘playing of nymph in woods and fountains’, of ‘enchanted grots’ and the ‘visions’ of a ‘high romance’ – the ‘realm […] of Flora, and old Pan’ – as an escape, as a failure to face up to the genuine demands of creativity, demands which Keats was increasingly prepared to accept. This movement is clearly visible in ‘Sleep and Poetry’. He states unmistakably that:

    the realm I’ll pass
    Of Flora, and old Pan

    and that he will pass them:

    for a nobler life
    Where I may find the agonies, the strife
    Of human hearts

    In the first of these realms he luxuriates in the visions of fancy. He can:

    sleep in the grass,
    Feed upon apples red, and strawberries,
    And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees

    But he must ‘bid these joys farewell; must put aside the indulgence of fancy that he had learnt from Hunt because such indulgence is never poesy. Poesy is something else. In ‘Sleep and Poetry’ Keats strives to tell us what it is and, in doing so, enters upon his birthright.

    Nobler than fancy is the search for:

    the agonies, the strife
    Of human hearts

    which is the strife of the heart of the poet who, recognising his genius, sees in the very moment of recognition that his genius involves its own sublimation. The poet is a charioteer who:

    Looks out upon the winds with glorious fear
    Most awefully intent
    The driver of those steeds is forward bent,
    And seems to listen

    The paradox of the power of genius and its humility is already there. The horseman who drives ‘his steeds with streamy manes’ through the heavens, at the same time looks ahead with ‘fear’ – but a fear that is glorious. And though he is ‘forward bent’, it is to ‘listen’. The charioteer is supreme and attentive at the same time, and Keats wishes:

    that I might know
    All that he writes with such a hurrying glow

    But these visions, of themselves, are inadequate. They vanish and:

    in their stead
    A sense of real things comes doubly strong

    Keats feels that this reality:

    like a muddy stream would bear along
    My soul to nothingness’

    The fear that reality – the hospital wards in which he was spending his days – would drive away vision instead of reinforcing it is still strong. He determines that he will:

    Against all doubtings, and will keep alive
    The thought of that same chariot, and the strange
    Journey it went

    This insight inevitably made him see the derivative, fanciful nature of most poetry. He writes that today:

    the high
    Imagination cannot freely fly
    As she was want of old

    because poets had failed to arrive at these new insights:

    ye were dead
    To things ye knew not of

    Poetry had become mere technique. Poets now:

    were closely wed
    To musty laws lined out with wretched rule
    And compass vile: so that ye taught a school
    Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit,
    Easy was the task:
    A thousand handicraftsmen wore the mask
    Of Poesy.

    Are we not reminded here of Blake?

    Poetry is never merely a technique that can be learnt, nor is it the mere power of the charioteer, because along with the handicraftsmen there have been poets of power:

    In truth we’ve had
    Strange thunders from the potency of song

    These have even been:

    Mingled indeed with what is sweet and strong,
    From majesty

    In other words, they have fulfilled Keats’ demand that poetry should involve an attentive strength, and that they should do this without any investment of ideas, without any ulterior motivation, because:

    in clear truth the themes
    Are ugly clubs, the Poets Polyphemes
    Disturbing the grand sea.

    Poetry is never the communication of a theme, never the medium by which an idea is passed on. Any such didactic purpose would be too active, too much in control of itself and thus, even if powerful, would be insufficiently attentive:

    strength alone though of the Muses born
    Is like a fallen angel

    True poesy, on the other hand, is something more like a kind of sleep:

    A drainless shower
    Of light is poesy; ‘tis the supreme power;
    ‘Tis might half-slumb’ring on its own right arm.
    The very archings of her eye-lids charm
    A thousand willing agents to obey,
    And still she governs with the mildest sway

    The poet, in rejecting both the affirmation of ideas and the self-affirmation of strength still accepts the strength demanded of a supreme power – which governs him with ‘the mildest sway’ – because he is willing to be governed. Poesy is pregnant with itself and expresses nothing but itself. It is, as itself, immediate. Never a form which mediates a content, its form is its content. It is its own potential and, as potential to itself, makes no demands on the poet to exert himself, but rather uses him who obeys willingly. Poesy is never about anything, even poesy, but simply is itself and thus is; exists. It belongs merely to itself. It is its own:

    ‘Tis might half-slumb’ring on its own right arm.

    Keats’ sees poetry as ‘might half slumb’ring on its own right arm’, not as something which commands obedience of its willing agents

    This contest in Keats’ conception of creativity between poetry as task, as effort, and his growing conviction of it as a diligent attention dogged his path throughout the composition of ‘Endymion’ and could be said to be the undercurrent to his whole poetic life. It certainly results in some of the inconsistencies so easily noticed in the poem. But, at this moment, Keats reaches a sort of plateau of compromise between the two. He achieves this with the help of the legend of Diana and the inspiration of the moon. The moon was a significant symbol for Keats. The ghostly, watery glimmer of moonlight transforms the world in which it shines into a mystery in which imagination can dream. Diana, the goddess of the moon, transforms the world into poetry and does so through her love of the poet’s solitude. Because she wanders alone herself, she can be ‘a lover of loneliness, and wandering’ and this love creates poetry:

    Thee must I praise above all other glories
    That smile on us to tell delightful stories
    For what has made the sage or poet write
    But the fair paradise of Nature’s light

    Diana is a ‘maker of sweet poets’ by granting them life in her light. She brings them:

    Shapes from the invisible world, unearthly singing
    From out the middle airs

    and this gift is granted to the poet who has ‘burst our mortal bars’:

    Into some wond’rous region he had gone

    to win Diana through Love. Love is the gift which grants the poet his immortality. He has ‘burst his mortal bars’ as he so poignantly does again in the later ‘Fall of Hyperion’, in order:

    To search for thee, divine Endymion!

    Endymion was ‘a Poet, sure a lover too who breathed ‘a hymn from Dian’s temple’ and recognised that her lover needed requiting:

    The Poet wept at her so piteous fate,
    Wept that such beauty could be desolate:
    So in fine wrath some golden sounds he won,
    And gave meek Cynthia her Endymion

    The marriage, the synthesis, of these two is the very act of creativity, and Keats asks:

    for three words of honey, that I might
    Tell but one wonder of thy bridal night

    His wandering spirit dares to think that their union might produce a poet and that he might be that poet:

    I cannot tell the greater blisses,
    That follow’d thine and thy dear shepherd’s kisses:
    Was there a Poet born?

    In this moment of daring, the poem breaks off:

    My wand’ring spirit must no further soar.

    But this very conception of the poetical relation between mortals and the mysteries of Diana is the subject that Keats takes up again in ‘Endymion’.

    the man is yet to come
    Who hath not journeyed in this native hell.
    But few have ever felt how calm and well
    Sleep may be had in that deep den of all.
    There anguish does not sting; nor pleasure pall:
    Woe-hurricanes beat ever at the gate,
    Yet all is still within and desolate.
    Beset with painful gusts, within ye hear
    No sound so loud as when on curtain’d bier
    The death-watch tick is stifled. Enter none
    Who strive therefore: on a sudden it is won.
    Just when the sufferer begins to burn,
    Then it is free to him; and from an urn,
    Still fed by melting ice, he takes a draught-
    Young Semele such richness never quaft
    In her maternal longing! Happy gloom!
    Dark Paradise! where pale becomes the bloom
    Of health by due; where silence dreariest
    Is most articulate; where hopes infest;
    Where those eyes are the brightest far that keep
    Their lids shut longest in a dreamless sleep.
    O happy spirit-home O wondrous soul!
    Pregnant with such a den to save the whole
    In thine own depth.

    In this den where sleep may be had is able to ‘save the whole’. Keats writes to Reynolds in his letter/poem:

    O fret not after knowledge – I have none,
    And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
    O fret not after knowledge – I have none,
    And yet the Evening listens. He who saddens
    At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
    And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.

    And I haven’t said anything yet about the ‘dreamy urn’ or Hyperion – A Dream. The notion of creative indolence or sleep is critical to Keats’ notion of creativity.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thanks David – that is hugely helpful. Reading my Keats posts you know that I always want to strike out that still pervasive view of Keats as a weak youth, and would never encourage readers to start reading his poetry with that vision in mind. Ben Wishaw was fabulous as Keats in Bright Star but was, once again, portrayed as rather thin and ‘soft’, when in reality he was stocky and pugnacious with an expression that all his friends considered exceptionally lively.

      I do so want you to write a guest post for my blog – but the ones you sent through are scholarly (like this response, which I do admire) and a bit long. I have always recognised my limitations as Keats scholar. I respond emotionally and reflect on what the poetry means to me. People seem to like that. I sense it frustrates you? I know what indolence means in this context, but many still equate it with idleness, which is NOT what Keats meant, or a state he found productive. I have read and written extensively on the impact his medical studies had on him and it was quickly clear that he would outgrow Leigh Hunt and work through, what I believe to be, some of the greatest philosophical thinking on the nature of poetry and what it means to be human.

      I really appreciate your taking the time to comment. Please do email me if you would like to discuss this further. Suzie

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