Poetry Month: “The Pains of Sleep” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

April 4, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Samuel_Taylor_ColeridgeSamuel Taylor Coleridge’s short poem “The Pains of Sleep,” written in 1803 but not published until 1816, is deceptively simple. The poet himself refers to it as a “fragment” detailing a “dream of pain and disease.” It originally appeared in combination with “Kubla Khan,” another fragment, which Coleridge published at Lord Byron’s urging. According to Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” resulted from a vision that appeared during an opium nod. In his dream the entire poem, no “less than from two to three hundred lines,” came to him “without any sensation of consciousness or effort.” (Coleridge began writing immediately upon waking, the story goes, but was interrupted midway, and thus the remainder of the vision was lost.)

Perhaps as a result of the association with “Kubla Khan,” many critics wish to read “The Pains of Sleep” as a verse about the effects of opium addiction, or opium withdrawal. But while Coleridge was unquestionably a user, there is nothing in the poem specifically addressing opium or addiction; rather, it describes the effect of waking from a nightmare, something not confined to the experience of addicts. The poem’s first-person narrator has been identified as Coleridge himself but, again, there is nothing intrinsic to the poem that insists on this interpretation.

Despite its brevity (the poem is only three stanzas long, containing a mere fifty-two lines), “The Pains of Sleep” is quite subtle in the way it achieves its effects, moving through a spectrum of emotional states with linguistic ingenuity and fluid grace.

The rhythm of the opening stanza is laconic, with an agglomeration of “es” sounds giving the impression of someone whispering in the reader’s ear. We are presented with the narrator preparing for sleep, composing himself “silently” and “by slow degrees.” It is not the narrator’s habit to pray before bedtime, we are told, at least not in the conventional sense, “with moving lips or bended knees.” Instead, overcome by “humble trust,” “reverential resignation,” and “a sense of supplication,” the narrator addresses his spirit to “Love.” The capital “L” seems to indicate divine love, although nowhere in the poem does Coleridge directly reference God. He says that “in me, around me, every where / Eternal Strength and Wisdom are,” but these are as easily interpreted as philosophical, rather than theological, constructs. The poet was a believer (elsewhere he writes, “no man can be assured of his sincerity, who does not pray”), but “The Pains of Sleep” is more a spiritual poem than a baldly religious one.

In the second stanza, the quietude and soft language vanish; the transition is abrupt, and mirrors the fear that accompanies waking from a terrible dream. Gone are the languid pace and relative calm, replaced with a lexicon of pain and horror: the narrator is “tortured” by “burning,” “loathing,” and “life-stifling fear.” He wakes instantly, frightened by “the fiendish crowd / Of shapes and thoughts” that has assaulted him in his dream; for the first time he “pray[s] aloud,” but no longer in supplication and trust, rather “in anguish and in agony.”

The narrator also falls victim to the discombobulation of starting out of a fervid dream; he claims to be “baffled” and “confused,” and his confusion extends to the nature of his feelings upon awakening. Although he is plagued by “shame” and “guilt” arising out of ill omens and images in his dream, he is unable to locate the source of this guilt, or the culprit responsible for it: “Deeds to be hid which were not hid, / Which all confused I could not know / Whether I suffered or I did.”

It is the not knowing, as much as anything, that discomfits the poem’s narrator. The combination of desire and loathing “strangely mixed” torment him over the course of two successive nights, rendering his days “saddened and stunned.” The “wide blessing” of sleep becomes for the narrator “distemper’s worst calamity.”

But here, in the final stanza, the poem takes another turn, climaxing in the narrator’s cathartic breakdown, the moment at which, after waking in terror from yet another dream, he cries like a child. This flood of tears subdues the narrator’s “anguish to a milder mood” and admits a changed perspective on his inner turmoil.

Here the poet does write in explicitly religious language, suggesting the psychological torment of nightmare visions deserved to befall those “natures deepliest stained with sin” – those desirous of plumbing the depths of the “unfathomable hell” in their characters. The poem’s narrator resembles a kind of proto-Nietzsche, contemplating the abyss and imagining the abyss staring back at him. And yet the tension remains unresolved in the final lines of the poem. The narrator feels undeserving of the psychological suffering he is heir to; the distress and horror of nightmare visions would “well agree” with others of a less moral constitution, but “wherefore,” the narrator asks, “wherefore fall on me?”

Coleridge died twenty-two years before Freud was even born, and so does not have the psychoanalytic language to describe the subconscious or the subliminal nature of dream life, but his short poem anticipates many of the concerns the latter would wrestle with in books such as The Interpretation of Dreams (not to mention traversing some of the same ground as the Symbolists and the Surrealists). Its open-endedness perhaps results from its fragmentary nature, or perhaps from the lack of resolution the poet can conceive for the affliction of an overactive imagination. Or perhaps Donald A. Stauffer is correct in his assessment of the “dominant idea” in Coleridge’s poetry: “the lifelong mystery of an individual searching for unity in a phantasmal cosmos.” Searching but, in “The Pains of Sleep,” failing to locate it.

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