One of the most celebrated and terrifying poems of the second half of the 20th century — and one of poetry’s great treatments of insomnia — is Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” The 1977 poem describes an experience all of us have at some point, that of waking up much earlier than we’d intended and, unable to get back to sleep, lying in a hazy torment in which all our life’s anxieties are amplified tenfold. The anxiety that hounds Larkin turns out to be the prospect of his own death:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
Larkin wants us to see that these states prefigure death itself: death too will be an affair of “soundless dark” in which “all thought [is] impossible” and the individual — supine, rigid, gaping at nothing in particular — is quite alone. We are all speeding toward the endless acreage of death, and it’s a paradox of life that we only fully glimpse that fact against the clarifying backdrop of night and darkness. Insomniac poets glimpse it with particular sharpness, and often seem proud of this: afflicted by a crippling illness, they yet occupy a place of lonely, privileged insight, gazing out from an observatory of solitude and sleeplessness at a misguided humanity, lost in a hypnosis of daily tasks that divert it from its destiny.
If the rest of his oeuvre is any indication, Larkin had a devilish time with sleep. Poems like “Sad Steps” (which begins, “Groping back to bed after a piss”) testify to the woes he encountered falling and remaining asleep; another, “Love Again,” which starts off, “Wanking at ten past three,” provides a glimpse into one of his time-tested remedies. But in this he is hardly an anomaly: poets are notoriously wretched sleepers, hopeless insomniacs who’ve developed bizarre rituals around bedtime and sleep. The Internet loves a good story about the sleeping habits of geniuses, particularly great writers — witness the BrainPickings article, “Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized,” which probably wafted across your Facebook feed back in 2013 when it was published. Of the 37 writers featured in that piece, though, only around three were poets.
And yet poets occupy the most special relationship to sleep. Partly this is because poetry is itself a form of sleep: it beckons readers — aloud into altered breathing patterns, and its rhythms, as W.B. Yeats once observed, serve “to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” In other words, poetry’s repeated beats can exert a narcoleptic force that seduces the mind into a state of heightened receptivity, an openness to the dreamlike succession of images the poem initiates.
But it’s also because poets have historically developed so many sleep-related idiosyncrasies, so many WTF-caliber bedtime tics, that one begins to wonder whether nighttime anxieties are part and parcel with the trade. Take Lord Byron, who went to bed at dawn and rose at 2 p.m. Prior to sleep, Byron punctually swallowed a single egg yolk whole while standing, then retired to his chambers, where he slept with two loaded pistols at his bedside and a dagger under his pillow. The weaponry served two purposes: to arm him against cuckolded husbands who might invade his bedroom in search of revenge (we’re talking about someone who, during his first two years living in Venice, slept with around 200 women, to say nothing of men and boys); and to offer him a shortcut to oblivion in case he decided to off himself while in bed. An aggressive teeth-grinder during sleep, Byron habitually awoke from nightmares that left him awash in suicidal gloom. “I awoke from a dream!” he recorded in his journal in November 1813, “but she” — his dead mother, we think — “did not overtake me. I wish the dead would rest, however. Ugh! how my blood chilled,–and I could not wake—and—and—heigho!” An animal-lover and vegetarian, Byron also kept a pet bear, Bruin, while a student at Cambridge, and according to some accounts the bear lived with him in his lodgings, a sentry while he slept.
Vita Sackville-West — a friend and lover of Virginia Woolf and a poet herself — combated her insomnia by collecting as many dogs as possible and inviting them into bed with her. Amy Lowell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, would check into a hotel and rent out her own room as well as those above, below, and on either side of it. William Wordsworth had younger sister Dorothy read aloud to him; Dante Alighieri, his contemporary Giovanni Boccaccio tells us, kept “vigils” late into the night, frustrating for his wife and children, during which he read, and may have suffered from narcolepsy. Sylvia Plath, during the febrile, end-of-life stretch of creativity that yielded the poems in Ariel (including “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”), began her nightly routine by swallowing one sleeping pill after another, lying back and waiting for them to take hold. Then, “Every morning, when my sleeping pills wear off,” she wrote her mother, “I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad — have managed a poem a day before breakfast.”
Other poets have turned to nocturnal walking: Emily Brontë walked around and around her dining room table for hours until sleepiness overtook her; Walt Whitman, in “Hours Continuing Long,” tells of a sickening unrequited love that brings him “Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth, speeding swiftly the country roads, or through the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling plaintive cries.”
Still others have used drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend and collaborator, suffered nightmares as a child so frightful and overmastering he woke entire households with his screaming. He attempted to stave these off by repeating a rhyming prayer before sleep: “Four Angels round me spread, Two at my foot & two at my head.” As an adult, notoriously, he used opium, initially to ease the pain from various physical ailments, and later simply as a nighttime relaxant. This fueled additional nightmares that still have the power to harrow, certain of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Byron’s nightmare mentioned above. His notebooks relate one of these, which reads today like a thinly veiled drama of castration anxiety: “A most frightful Dream of a Woman whose features were blended with darkness catching hold of my right eye & attempting to pull it out — I caught hold of her arm fast — a horrid feel — Wordsworth cried out aloud to me hearing my scream — [ . . . ] When I awoke, my right eyelid swelled.”
Whatever the nature of their sleep hang-ups, their poems have furnished these writers with spaces in which to record their nocturnal trials. Quite literally: stanza is Italian for room, station, stopping-place — and many of the most formally masterful poems possess the structural elegance of floor plans. “Language,” wrote the modernist poet Hart Crane, “has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.” He might’ve added that it builds houses, too, complete with rooms we readers traverse, stanzaic stations we might think of as thought-progressions, sequences of emotion, attics of memories, spatially realized. We dwell for a time in this stanza and then that, breathing the air it stores through its particular respiratory patterns, thinking and feeling in time with the poet.
Poets plot paths through these dwelling spaces, and the paths often lead us to, or at least through, bedrooms. John Donne’s 1633 poem “The Sun Rising,” spoken from within a bedroom, indeed under the covers, is an extended complaint addressed to the sun, which Donne chides for interrupting his all-night lovemaking with its intrusive beams. In the end he brags to the sun that its journey round the earth is redundant, since his own bedroom, rightly seen, is a microcosm in which all the truth and goodness and riches in the world are concentrated: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.” Our love nest, he insists, is the real sun, that other one the merest satellite in its orbit.
In “The Canonization,” Donne explicitly plays on the conceit of stanzas as rooms, imagining his own poetry as a verbal mausoleum replete with chambers that house — immortalize — the memories of his relationship with his lover. “And if unfit for chronicle we prove,” he writes — he and his love are no conventional saints, after all, and so aren’t fit for hagiography — “we’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms.” These are the chambers through which we wander as readers, marveling at relics of a love shared by two people long since claimed by death and granting them, in reading the poem aloud, a secular sainthood: through their bedroom ecstasies they’ve martyred themselves to Eros.
Over the top? Absolutely. But then, a penchant for the dramatic gesture does come with the poetic territory. Thomas Hardy, who wrote novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles but considered himself foremost a poet, lost his long-estranged wife to heart failure and impacted gallstones in 1912, and had her body placed in a coffin at the foot of his bed for the three days and nights leading up to the funeral. “I shall traverse old love’s domain / Never again,” he vowed in “At Castle Boterel” some months later. (He remarried the following year.) Hardy’s work may be the quintessential example of poetry as an architectural construct. A trained architect, Hardy brought a formal rigor to poetic making that drew heavily on the Gothic aesthetic he’d been taught as an apprentice draftsman. In the hewn angularity and symmetry of his stanzas one sees the imprint of an obsessive designer; here are verse-rooms adorned with complexly irregular stress patterns that embellish like molding, tracery, or cornice — meticulous masonry.
Hardy’s morbid, beyond-emo vigils with his wife’s freshly coffined body reinforce how, again and again, poets’ imaginations return to a vision of the bedroom as a sepulcher, a prefiguration of endings — and of sleep as a forerunner of that vaster slumber toward which we’re all hurtling. Larkin lying in bed at 4 a.m. broods on eternity; Mark Strand writes in Dark Harbor, “The end / Is enacted again and again. And we feel it / In the temptations of sleep”; Edgar Allan Poe is said to have remarked, “Sleep, those little slices of death — how I abhor them.” Poe’s comment makes explicit a darkly fascinating possibility: that the desperate, thwarted desire of insomniacs to fall asleep is really a cover for a deep-down fear of sleep, itself at bottom a fear of death. “Perhaps my insomnia only conceals a great fear of death,” Franz Kafka (not a poet but a kindred spirit to these other writers) once speculated. “Perhaps I am afraid that the soul — which in sleep leaves me — will never return.”
Insomniacs, in other words, may harbor a fear of sleep that amounts to a fear of self-loss and an abandonment of control — a resistance against self-unraveling, both the one that will eventually happen for keeps, and the one that nightly happens and asks each of us at bedtime to do a dry run for death. What if you aren’t quite the same when you wake? And to what alien terrains, what modes of being and desiring that run counter to whoever you thought you were, will sleep waft you? Resisting such self-dissolution, such loss of control, the insomniac hangs on, clinging to consciousness that is the binding agent of identity and our way of retaining our hold on the world.
It may be true that, as Greg Johnson has suggested, this holding fast to consciousness — a clutching at cognizance that fends off self-loss — is most pronounced in writers. Insomnia for Johnson is the very symbol of the writer’s condition, the “image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes.” Johnson points to Emily Dickinson as his prime example of an insomniac poet whose stoical resistance to sleep stemmed from her unwillingness to relinquish consciousness. In one poem Johnson spotlights, Dickinson muses on a gift “given to me by the Gods” — her poetic genius — and remarks that she refuses even to sleep “for fear it would be gone.” So she stayed awake (“I would not stop for night,” she boasts in one poem) writing late into the night, the very icon, with Kafka maybe, of nocturnal industry among writers, in a bedroom where she lived a sort of death-in-life — she seldom left it — and a burial place where she interred her (largely unpublished) poems, her sole progeny: here, after her death, Dickinson’s family discovered some 1,800 poems written on the backs of envelopes and edges of newspapers, and collected in hand-sewn books she herself had made.
What insomniac poets like Dickinson have held onto, though, isn’t just a vigilant watch over reality but a coherence of self. They’ve jealously safeguarded the intactness of their identities — and in this they are proxies for the rest of us abysmal sleepers. I suspect it’s not coincidental that Coleridge — that great romantic evangelist of the imagination who defined poetry — writing as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” — had such a horrendous time with sleep. During creativity, Coleridge thought, the poet ascends to godlike stature, refashioning reality so that it accords with his own unique vision — a brash imposition of ego onto the surrounding world that mimics God’s creation of the cosmos in Genesis. But proximity to sleep carries us to the brink of our own psychic disintegration, and, contrary to Coleridge’s formulation, forces us to look forward to a moment in the future when we aren’t.
Of course, beds aren’t simply sites of sleep; they’re sites of sex. That numerous poets have approached the business of sex with a trepidation to match their fear of sleep is practically proverbial. John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic who doubled as a poet during his youth and struggled with insomnia, legendarily refused to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray because, as she wrote in a letter, “he was disgusted with my person” — a comment historians have interpreted to mean that she had body odor, or was menstruating, or, most interestingly, that he was scandalized to discover she had pubic hair. Yeats and T.S. Eliot remained virgins till 30 and 26, respectively; Christina Rossetti, gorgeous and much sought-after as a young woman, never married, and in Goblin Market imagines fleshly pleasure as an addictive, otherworldly fruit capable of depleting and devouring the soul.
It’s hard not to speculate that the two anxieties are intertwined. Sleep is an occasion for self-loss, but so is sex. It’s well known that during the Renaissance people began referring to orgasm as a “death” of sorts; to ejaculate was to “expen[d]” a portion of one’s “spirit,” as William Shakespeare memorably phrases it in his Sonnet 129 — a figure that elegantly gets at the notion of sexual climax as self-departure, an instant in which some of the pith of one’s inner being flees one. To reach bodily bliss was to “expire,” according to one way of reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73; orgasm was “death’s second self,” an interval of perfect oblivion wherein pleasure eclipsed the exigencies of the here and now, blotted out self and world.
Here then is the crux of the matter: beds drive home an abstract coupling — of which many of us are at least dimly aware, whether we can articulate it or not — of death and sex. Beds are where we go to lose ourselves. Most of us will die in a bed — the phase just prior to dying is, of course, called one’s deathbed — and sleep, as so many poets have recognized, is a nightly rehearsal for death. But sex too entails a kind of dying: as one of the surest ways to break the boundaries that normally delineate you, sex like sleep can bring out anti-selves, identities, and impulses you may not have known you harbored. And it can lead to intervals of self-annihilation and a communing with otherness that few other pastimes can.
But this might be a thing to embrace rather than fear. The capacity of sleep and sex both to catalyze a death-like self-abandonment has been, historically, what certain poets have most cherished about these phenomena. “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die,” said Mahatma Gandhi, himself an unsung poet. “And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” Sleep for Gandhi represented a welcome interment from which he might rise at daylight, transfigured if only slightly. For John Keats, meanwhile, the bedroom came to seem, as it had for Larkin and Hardy, a “sepulchre” into which he retired each evening — yet it was precisely the sepulchral aspect of the bedroom and the deathlike dimension of what happened there that Keats excitedly seized on. “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks,” he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne, “your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” Keats dreamed of a concentrated instant that joined mortality and sexual activity, the twin components of human experience that promised to liberate one from the constraints of individual identity.
The perspective of Keats and Gandhi — which looks enthusiastically on the nightly metamorphoses of self that happen under the covers — may be an altogether healthier one than dread. It may be, too, a perspective consistent with recent advances in microbiology. That is, those who dread self-loss would do well to ask themselves what it is they are holding onto, and whether their endeavor to retain it might not have been doomed from the get-go. We now know, as microbiologist Ed Yong has shown in his gripping I Contain Multitudes, that our bodies play host to trillions of immigrant microbes and quadrillions of viruses that momently multiply on our faces, hands, and in our guts, making up roughly half our being and forcing us to reconsider what we even think of as a self. For that matter, the majority of our own bodies’ cells have a lifespan of just seven to 10 years, and though you might like to think of yours as a permanent construct, the better part of it exists in a state of constant flux. Most of what you think of as “you” gets completely renewed as often as your passport.
Yet insomniac writers have been grappling with how to make sense of this fact since at least the Victorian era. Walter Pater, like Ruskin a Victorian essayist who wrote poetry as a young man — and, when struggling to write, suffered “grey hours of lassitude and insomnia” — brooded over the prospect that human beings were merely confluences of particles in time and space, continuously in motion. “Such thoughts,” wrote Pater, “seem desolate at first; at times all the bitterness of life seems concentrated in them. They bring the image of one washed out beyond the bar in a sea at an ebb, losing even his personality, as the elements of which he is composed pass into new combinations. Struggling, as he must, to save himself, it is himself that he loses at every moment.”
If for Pater this thought was desolate at first, in the most famous paragraphs he wrote — the “Conclusion” to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance — he imagined a new perspective, one that likewise looked on life as a billion discrete instants in which the physical world and human identity itself were in ceaseless unrest; where individuals were subject to a “strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves” — but saw this condition as liberating and galvanizing. Only by recognizing the uniqueness and immediate decay of each moment could we position ourselves to relish it, make it gravid with effort and enjoyment, and so attain “a quickened sense of life.”
Death is a moment-to-moment phenomenon; the self shivers with all the ephemerality of a drop of dew, shifting and altering with each instant. Lying awake at night and contemplating our eventual demise, we fret over an event that is already behind us, that has played out unendingly since we came into being and will repeat itself innumerable times in the future. Accepting this, we might more cheerfully brave the windows of self-loss that lie in wait for us in bedrooms: the manifold deaths, the transfigurations these make possible.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.