‘To Sleep’ is not one of William Wordsworth’s best-known poems. It isn’t even one of his more famous sonnets. And yet, since it sees a major poet addressing a common theme, ‘To Sleep’ is worth reproducing here, along with a few words of analysis.
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.
Even thus last night, and two nights more, I lay,
And could not win thee, Sleep! by any stealth:
So do not let me wear to-night away:
Without Thee what is all the morning’s wealth?
Come, blessed barrier between day and day,
Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health!
Despite its title, ‘To Sleep’ is not about sleep but 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. This is a Romantic precursor to the third of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’, that great twentieth-century modernist evocation of a sleepless night (and morning).
Much like Sir Philip Sidney in his famous (and far earlier) sonnet to sleep, ‘To Sleep’ sees Wordsworth addressing (and so, in a way, personifying) sleep, flattering it in an attempt to persuade it to visit him so that he might be refreshed and rejuvenated ready for tomorrow. Note how sleep is not just personified (as ‘Sleep’) but is gendered as female: ‘Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health!’ as the poem’s final line has it.
We might recall that for the Romantics, and indeed for many other writers, nature was also personified as a bounteous mother: Mother Nature. And this is what makes ‘To Sleep’ such an interesting Romantic poem: the opening images drawn from the natural world, of sheep passing by or the sound of rain or buzzing bees, to say nothing of ‘the fall of rivers, winds and seas’, are drawn from Wordsworth’s own poetic arsenal, and are subjects about which he frequently wrote. But here, even recalling or imagining the power of nature in all its calm serenity cannot help lull the poet to sleep.