By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Whether we’re suffering from insomnia or asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow, whether we get too little or too much of it, sleep is a big part of our lives. So it’s unsurprising that so many poets have explored sleep in their work. Here are ten of the greatest poems about sleep from all of English literature.
Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 39.
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof shield me from out the press
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so …
‘Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace’: so begins this, one of the most famous poems from the first substantial sonnet sequence written in English (in the early 1580s).
In this sonnet, one of Sir Philip Sidney’s most oft-anthologised poems, Astrophil tries to strike a bargain with sleep (which eludes him because of his passionate love for Stella), promising the personified ‘Sleep’ a nice reward if the poet’s request for rest is granted: that there, in Astrophil’s dreams, we will be able to see the beautiful image of Stella.
One of the cleverest sonnets in the sequence – though ‘clever’ should not be confused with ‘contrived’ here.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 27.
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired …
Every sonnet sequence should have at least one poem about sleeplessness. Sidney had ‘Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace’, and, in Sonnet 27 beginning ‘Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed’, Shakespeare has his sleepless poem.
It begins with a familiar scene, and something we’ve probably all endured at some point: Shakespeare goes to bed, but his mind is running wild and keeping him from dropping off. His thoughts wander to the Fair Youth whom he loves. This is less a poem about sleep than about sleeplessness.
Thomas Dekker, ‘Golden Slumbers’.
Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby …
Memorably used by The Beatles as the lyrics for their song of the same name on the Abbey Road LP, ‘Golden Slumbers’ is a lullaby from Thomas Dekker’s 1603 play Patient Grissel, written with Henry Chettle and William Haughton. This is one of the most soothing short Renaissance poems – and perhaps the best-known Renaissance lullaby, or ‘cradle song’, out there.
William Blake, ‘Cradle Song’.
Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep …
Another lullaby, ‘Cradle Song’ is intended to be sung by a mother to her newborn child in order to lull the baby to sleep. The repetition of ‘Sweet’ at the beginning of many of the poem’s stanzas (or perhaps we should say, the song’s verses) helps to create a soothing effect. One wonders how many infants have been eased into dreamland by maternal recitals of Blake’s poem.
William Wordsworth, ‘To Sleep’.
A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by,
One after one; the sound of rain, and bees
Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds and seas,
Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky;
I have thought of all by turns, and yet do lie
Sleepless! and soon the small birds’ melodies
Must hear, first uttered from my orchard trees;
And the first cuckoo’s melancholy cry …
So begins this, another poem on this list of the best poems about sleep which is actually about sleeplessness: it’s a sonnet which sees Wordsworth listing the various ways he’s tried to lull himself to sleep (such as counting sheep), all to no avail. The poet knows that soon he will hear the birds singing outside, and know that he will never get to sleep and it’ll be time to get up and go about his daily life again.
John Keats, ‘To Sleep’.
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 …
This sonnet by one of the leading second-generation Romantic poets addresses sleep as a ‘soft embalmer of the still midnight’. Sleep allows us to escape from what A. E. Housman referred to as the sour taste of ‘all I ever did’, when one’s conscience begins to prick us, keeping us awake. Sleep wraps us up in lovely delicious rest, and allows us to forget the world.
Emily Dickinson, ‘A long, long sleep’.
This short poem by one of American literature’s greatest poets is actually about death – but then death is probably Dickinson’s greatest theme. The ‘long, long sleep’ is the sleep of death: death is imagined as an unbroken slumber for centuries, where the sleeper doesn’t ‘once look up for noon’.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Asleep’.
Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.
There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack …
Originally titled ‘Killed Asleep’, this poem by one of the leading poets of the First World War is about a soldier falling asleep – but sleep gives way to a deeper unconsciousness, as ‘in the happy no-time of his sleeping’ death comes for the soldier and ‘took him by the heart’.
Owen muses on the soldier’s death, and wonders about this deeper sleep into which the man has now sunk. Is he better off out of the harsh world of war, or would it have been better if he’d lived?
W. H. Auden, ‘Lullaby’.
‘Lay your sleeping head, my love …’: so begins this, one of the tenderest, and most honest and sincere, love poems in all of twentieth-century literature. A modern lullaby for all lovers – gay, straight, young, old.
Philip Larkin, ‘How to Sleep’.
The title of this early Larkin poem (he wrote it in 1950, when he was in his late twenties) says it all: the poem sees Larkin contemplating the best way to get himself to sleep: should he sleep like a child in the womb, or a saint in a tomb? (In other words, on his side in the foetal position, or on his back like a saint depicted in a stone effigy.)
Along with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’, perhaps the best depiction of a sleepless night ever expressed in poetry.
Discover more classic poems with these poems for birthdays, these classic religious poems, and these great poems about work. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Great selection! I was very happy to see Larkin on the list.