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 Nightingale,
particularly 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’).
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 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.