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The Pains of Sleep by Samuel Taylor Coleridge — Poem + Analysis

Coleridge’s ‘The Pains of Sleep’ is not just about insomnia; it’s about feeling deep, spiritual anguish where the mind it too troubled by itself to be able to properly rest. More than the physicality of getting to sleep, Coleridge explores the psychological thought processes of getting to sleep, rest, and peace, showing how these can be disrupted when the mind is burdened with stress and anxiety.

The analysis below is tailored towards A-Level (10th-12th Grade) students, but it is suitable for anyone studying the poem at any level, especially on the following exam boards: CIE / Cambridge, AQA, OCR, WJEC / Eduqas, CCEA, Edexcel.


Thanks for reading! If you find this analysis useful, you can access our full CIE A Level Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-a-level-poetry-anthology

For more help with English and Literature, see our full list of courses here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses


The Pains of Sleep

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,

It hath not been my use to pray

With moving lips or bended knees;

But silently, by slow degrees,

My spirit I to Love compose,

In humble trust mine eye-lids close,

With reverential resignation

No wish conceived, no thought exprest,

Only a sense of supplication;

A sense o’er all my soul imprest

That I am weak, yet not unblest,

Since in me, round me, every where

Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

.

But yester-night I prayed aloud

In anguish and in agony,

Up-starting from the fiendish crowd

Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:

A lurid light, a trampling throng,

Sense of intolerable wrong,

And whom I scorned, those only strong!

Thirst of revenge, the powerless will

Still baffled, and yet burning still!

Desire with loathing strangely mixed

On wild or hateful objects fixed.

Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!

And shame and terror over all!

Deeds to be hid which were not hid,

Which all confused I could not know

Whether I suffered, or I did:

For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,

My own or others still the same

Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

So two nights passed: the night’s dismay

Saddened and stunned the coming day.

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me

Distemper’s worst calamity.

.

The third night, when my own loud scream

Had waked me from the fiendish dream,

O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,

I wept as I had been a child;

And having thus by tears subdued

My anguish to a milder mood,

Such punishments, I said, were due

To natures deepliest stained with sin, —

For aye entempesting anew

The unfathomable hell within,

The horror of their deeds to view,

To know and loathe, yet wish and do!

Such griefs with such men well agree,

But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?

To be loved is all I need,

And whom I love, I love indeed.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


VOCABULARY

Ere — before

Hath — has

Compose — to make or form

Reverential — in reverence, respectful

Resignation — being resigned — serious acceptance of something unavoidable

Conceived — created, thought of

Supplication — being in a state of humbly asking for something

Imprest — impressed, pressed upon

Unblest — unblessed, not blessed

Eternal — lasting forever

Yester-night — last night

Anguish — stress

Agony — extreme pain

Up-starting — rising suddenly

Fiendish — devilish, like a fiend or devil

Lurid — too bright, glaring

Throng — a large, dense crowd of people or animals

Intolerable — unbearable, unable to be tolerated

Scorned — rejected, offended or expressed contempt for

The powerless will — the weak willpower, the weak mind

Loathing / Loathe — hatred / hate

Brawl — fight

Deeds — actions

Remorse — regret, feeling bad about something

Woe — sadness

Life-stifling — stopping or suppressing life

Soul-stifling — stopping or suppressing the soul

Dismay — worry, strife

Distemper — a mental or physical disease that creates a lack of harmony in the body

Calamity — disaster, distress

O’ercome — overcome

Aye — yes

Entempesting — brewing up, as in a storm building

Unfathomable — deep and difficult to understand or measure

Wherefore — why

STORY/SUMMARY

Before I lay down on the bed to sleep, I don’t usually pray by speaking or on my knees, but instead silently — slowly, I focus my spirit into a state of Love, I close my eyes and feel humbled and trusting, with respect and acceptance — not wanting anything or expressing thoughts, only existing in a humble state of prayer; a strong impression comes over my soul and I know that I am weak, but still blessed — because within me and around me — everywhere — there is eternal strength and wisdom (the presence of God).

But last night I prayed aloud because I awoke in pain and stress being tortured by fiendish shapes and thoughts in the mind: There was a bright, sickening light, a writhing crowd of horrible thoughts — it brought with it a sense of unbearable wrongness, reminders of people I offended or showed hatred for, a thirst for revenge and a lack of willpower to fight against these things. It was confusing, and the feeling is still burning! My emotions were a strange mixture of desire and loathing as my thoughts fixated on wild or hateful ideas. Unusual passionate feelings! A maddening war between urges and fearful thoughts! Shame and terror covered everything. Actions that should be hidden were plainly visible, I was so confused that I didn’t know whether I suffered from these actions or did them myself. Everything was guilt, remorse, and sadness — there was no difference between my own feelings, or feeling for others; I was consumed by a fear that crippled life, and shame that stifled the soul.

Two nights passed this way, the stress of each night made the following day sadder and I felt increasingly numb and dizzy. To me, the wide blessing of sleep seemed like the most painful and distressing action of a broken mind. During the third night, my own loud scream woke me up from a nightmare — I was overcome with strange, wild sufferings and I cried like a child. Tears softened my pain, and I realized that this kind of suffering is a punishment given to people whose characters (‘natures’) are very sinful. These people always have a storm within them, a deep, unknowable hell in their minds, it is horrible to see the kinds of things they do — knowing how bad their actions are and hating them, but also wishing to do them anyway. The kinds of pains I feel suit sinful, horrid men, but why, why do they trouble me? I just need to be loved, and the person I love, I love very strongly.

SPEAKER/VOICE

Speaking in the first person, the speaker (Coleridge himself) gives us a personal account of his nightly sleep ritual — he prays before going to bed, but not aloud and not in a demanding way, more in a meditative state where he shifts his mind to a state of ‘Love’ and tries to empty it of wishes and desires, instead humbly accepting that he is weaker than the higher power to which he prays. The following state of mental anguish and turmoil is confusing for the speaker, he seems to feel that it is unfair for a man such as him, a humble and honest man, to be plagued by traumatic visions as he does not see the reason for such turmoil in his life. The title can be interpreted in several ways — it is difficult or painful for him to sleep, as the process is upsetting, or otherwise sleeping gives him ‘pains’ as during the night he is troubled by nightmares and placed into a state of suffering.

LANGUAGE

The semantic field of spirituality — ‘my spirit I to Love compose’, ‘humble trust’ ‘reverential resignation’ ‘supplication’, ‘Eternal strength and Wisdom’ — in the first stanza Coleridge uses a semantic field of spirituality to show that his mind is switching over to a meditative state in prayer as he prepares to sleep for the night — he speaks of feeling humbled at the wisdom and power of a Divine presence, which reminds him of how weak he is as a mere human being, but also how he is supported by this Divine power and therefore should feel safe and protected. This holy atmosphere is disrupted in the following stanzas, which are filled with night terrors and traumatic visions. The alliteration of ‘reverential resignation’, coupled with its use of polysyllabic lexis, makes the phrase stand out — it creates an impression of the speaker as a humble, suppliant and spiritual person who is generally honest and open to receiving spiritual guidance, which contrasts with the later stanzas when he is plagued by nightmares and horrific visions.

Antithesis — ‘Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me / Distemper’s worst calamity.’

But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?’ — the antithesis of ‘wide blessing’ and ‘worst calamity’ heighten the intense emotions of the speaker even further in this phrase as we realise his world has become inverted — typically a time of peace and rest, the prospect of a night’s sleep becomes a terrifying and troubling experience that is always worried about during the day.

The epizeuxis of ‘wherefore, wherefore’ is particularly emphatic, as if the word ‘wherefore’ (why/ for what reason) is circling continually around the speaker’s head, he cannot understand why he has been tortured by nightmares and awful thoughts.

Assonance — ‘In anguish and in agony,’ — the open vowel sounds of ‘anguish’ and ‘agony’ imitate the action of moaning and lamenting, enhancing the sense of the speaker being in a state of suffering.

Simile — ‘I wept as I had been a child;’ — the speaker is reduced to a childlike state of helplessness and starts crying, because he is entirely unable to combat the emotions and thoughts that he feels. This perhaps implies the way in which mental health issues such as insomnia, depression and anxiety can be highly disempowering for the individual who suffers, leaving them feeling as though they are both helpless and useless.

STRUCTURE / FORM

The poem is structured into three stanzas that increase in length as the speaker becomes more stressed and distraught from his inability to sleep or rest properly. The rhyme scheme begins with a kind of regularity — using AABB rhyming couplets to show a sense of peace and harmony as the speaker describes his nightly prayer ritual, which leaves him in a state of peace and humility as he feels the safety and protection of a higher power. In the first stanza, the rhyme scheme is once disrupted –

In humble trust mine eye-lids close,

With reverential resignation

No wish conceived, no thought exprest,

Only a sense of supplication;

A sense o’er all my soul imprest

That I am weak, yet not unblest,

This stilted rhyme — which switches for a moment to alternate rhyme (ABAB) before going back to rhyming couplets — creates a slightly off kilter rhythm where the regularity and order is disrupted. This perhaps is a method of foreshadowing the later turmoil that is to come in the later stanzas with the speaker’s night terrors. The second stanza uses a more erratic mixture of alternate rhyme and couplets, switching several times between the two as the speaker’s mental state deteriorates and his nightly prayers and rest are disrupted by horrid thoughts and visions. The final stanza is a little more regular and mostly couplets, but with one shift to alternate rhyme.

Iambic tetrameter — the metre of the poem appears to be iambic tetrameter — four feet of iambs (unstressed — stressed syllables) per line. At times, the lines hyperextend to nine syllables per line instead of the usual eight, again emphasising the sense of disharmony, unbalance and disrupted routine.

CONTEXT

Written in 1803, the poem is part of a set that Coleridge wrote called ‘conversation poems’ where the poet takes the position of the speaker, talking directly from his personal point of view. We could say therefore that the poem is intentionally autobiographical and a way of Coleridge delving into his own personal experiences and his own psyche for subject matter.These poems all describe moments of spiritual epiphany — a sudden experience that changed Coleridge’s perspective on life or his attitude to nature and the universe.

Mental health issues — At the time of writing, Coleridge had been suffering for a while from bouts of depression and anxiety — partly caused by an unhappy marriage to Sara Fricker, whom he eventually separated from after their fourth child. It has been suggested also that Coleridge would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder had he lived in modern times, but as this was not a known disorder at the time his mental health caused him a lot of trouble throughout his life, as well as being a great inspiration and source of creativity.

Laudanum — for his physical and psychological problems, Coleridge was treated with laudanum — an opium tincture which at the time was used as a medicine, but which is now illegal. Coleridge became addicted to laudanum and went through phrases of taking the medicine, and trying to wean himself off the addiction. It is said that some of the side effects of opium withdrawal are nightmares and extremely depressive moods, and so it is possible that the poem is written during a phase of trying to recover from his laudanum addiction. Critic Richard Holmes suggests that Coleridge’s nightmares were the result of opium withdrawal: ‘the night-horrors which accompanied withdrawal symptoms from the drug…a ghastly outpouring of suppressed guilts and fears, the black stirred-up sediment of the unconscious mind erupting in the thin hours before dawn’.

Coleridge was troubled by vivid dreams and nightmares from an early age, recounting that when he was a boy he became ill for a period of time (aged 7), and he read a copy of The Arabian Nights with ‘a strange mixture of obscure dread and intense desire’, similar to the ‘Desire and loathing strangely mixed’ which he describes in the poem. It seems that Coleridge was compelled towards horror and had a vivid imagination, even from a young age.

ATTITUDES

The subconscious reveals to us our repressed fears — from a psychological perspective — especially when considering advancements in modern psychology and the work on the subconscious mind undertaken by psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, it could be argued that the speaker is experiencing visions that appear to him during dreams because he has repressed fears or anxieties that are manifesting in his subconscious. At the time of writing the poem, these psychological theories had not been developed, and so the speaker interprets the nightmares as being visions sent from God or a higher power, of which he can neither ignore nor make full sense.

Overactive imaginations can be highly creative, but also destructive — from a very young age, Coleridge was gifted with a highly active and vivid imagination — this manifests often in his poetry and is certainly part of his unique creative perspective. However, this kind of creative power can also become damaging and destructive if it is fixated on horrors, fears or anxieties. It is possible to argue that at the point of writing the poem, Coleridge may have been experiencing a time of difficulty with his mental health, and that this same gift which led to such creative potential in his art also troubled him psychologically when it became too negatively fixated on worries or fears. It has been suggested that he suffered from bipolar disorder, which would support this interpretation of his works.

Desires and urges should be controlled and moderated by the mind — the speaker appears horrified at some of the feelings he is experiencing in the poem — particularly the impulse to commit sinful or harmful acts, and the feeling that he is not entirely repelled by the idea of sin (as he should be). This attitude is quite characteristic of the 17th century approach to religion — Coleridge was raised in a Christian society (see context for more info) which openly denounced any kind of behaviour which it deemed negative or sinful; expecting people to always live up to perfect standards of piety and purity undoubtedly causes a lot of stress and repression.

Sinners should be punished, not good people — the speaker in the poem seems most confused and troubled by the fact that he considers himself by and large to be a good, pious person — a religious and humble man. He says that it is more than fair for sinners and evil people to be plagued by terrors and urges, but most cruel for someone like him to be sent them. This reflects the attitude as well, widely believed until the early 1900s, that mental turmoil leading to a state of spiritual anguish is a direct spiritual sign from God that a person is not on the right path and that they need to change themselves or make amends for something they have done wrong. For Coleridge, it is especially frustrating as he cannot see what his wrongs were, and is therefore unable to atone for them.

THEMES

  • Sleep / Insomnia
  • Dreams
  • Psychology
  • Anxiety / Depression
  • Love
  • Prayer / Meditation
  • Spirituality

Thanks for reading! If you find this analysis useful, you can access our full CIE A Level Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-a-level-poetry-anthology

For more help with English and Literature, see our full list of courses here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses

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