Poetic form and language in ‘The Pains of Sleep’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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‘The Pains of Sleep’ is written in the first person present tense from the point of view of an un-named narrator; which may (or may not) be the author. However, the nightmares and sleep disruption described in the poem are symptomatic of withdrawal from opiate addiction, an affliction from which Coleridge was known to suffer, and it is prudent to assume that it is the poet who speaks in this poem. The use of a first person present narrative gives this poem an intimate, almost conversational tone and allows the reader to feel as though they are taking part in a dialogue with the poet.
The version of the poem studied (see p 227-8, Owens and Johnson) contains no verses, however, there are clear turns of thought after lines 13 and 36 and–for the purpose of this essay–I will use these turns as convenient stanza breaks . The poem is written, predominantly, in iambic tetrameter of two stresses per foot and four feet per line. This tends to echo natural speech and strengthens the impression of conversation between intimates.
The first stanza comprises three rhyming couplets, a tercet and two further rhyming couplets. These follow the rhyme scheme aabbccdedeeff.. Lines 7 and 9 break the rhythm as they contain nine stresses and thus have hypermetrical, feminine endings which allow the poet’s thoughts to flow smoothly. These lines also contain the alliterative phrases ‘reverential resignation’ and ‘sense of supplication’ which draws attention to the poet’s quasi-religious experience with sleep prior to the onslaught of his drug induced nightmares.
The poet draws us in to the poem slowly and respectfully, pointing out that up until the previous night ‘It hath not been my use to pray’. He confesses that, despite his perceived weaknesses, he feels ‘not unblest ‘and this, together with the personification of the virtues of ‘Love’, ‘Strength’ and ‘Wisdom’, would seem to indicate that he felt the presence of something great and good all around him.
The lines in stanza one are mainly end stopped–giving them a sense of completeness–with the exception of lines 2, 10 and 12 which run-on to the next line. The enjambment of these lines creates a feeling of expectation and highlights the poet’s emotional state and low level of self esteem. This and the use of caesura in lines 4, 8, 11 and 12 shows the wonder the poet feels because (God) has not condemned him for his weakness.
The final couplet in this stanza closes with a half rhyme (where/are) , creating a feeling of discord and frustrating the reader’s expectations. This functions as a platform from which to step from the tranquillity of the first phase of the poem into the dreadfulness of the next phase.
In the second stanza the pace of the poem quickens, emulating the rapid breathing and feverish imaginings of a fear induced state, as the poet describes dream battles with his demons. There are more run-on lines in this stanza (lines 14, 16, 21, 23, 28, 31, 33 and 35), each emphasising the poet’s confusion as he struggles with the terrifying images and ideas his dreams have conjured. The rhyme scheme follows the path ababcccddeeffghghiikkll.
The first (line 14) highlights the torment that drives him to pray aloud for the first time, while the second (line 16) draws attention to the ‘fiendish crowd’ of wild imaginings that devastate his sleep pattern. The inversion of the words (up-starting) at the beginning of line 16 also hints at the unknown nature of the nameless fears that assail him. The alliteration of ‘thoughts that tortured’ is rapid and stuttering and evocative of the poet turning to find something that isn’t there. The first four lines of the stanza form an abab quatrain and pull us into the poet’s nightmares.
Line 18 begins a tercet whose alliteration of ‘lurid light’ and ‘trampling throng’ and assonance of ‘o’ vowel sounds suggests surreal, nightmarish landscapes full of embodied wrongs against which the poet is ‘powerless’ (line 21) and the caesura in ‘Fantastic passions! Maddening brawl!’ (line 25) further highlights the uncertainty with which he views these images. Lines 27-30 take the form of an abab quatrain.
Whether these wrongs are done to the poet or have been done to him (lines 28-29) is unclear but, given the social unrest and injustice of the period, it is feasible that Coleridge may be expressing his own political sympathies unconsciously within his dreams and, although Coleridge was not present at the Peterloo Massacre (St Peter’s Fields, Manchester) for example, it is possible he feels complicit by reason of his own social status and previous political leanings.
The alliterative (sibilant) line ‘Life -stifling fear, soul-stifling shame’ (line 32) draws attention to the collective burden of ‘guilt, remorse or woe’ he has chosen, rightly or wrongly, to take upon himself and marks a downward shift in the pace of the narrative.
‘The Pains of Sleep’ uses binary oppositions (heaven/hell, weak/strong) to persuade and shape the reader’s response to the poem and the poet. Coleridge is [perhaps unconsciously] inviting the reader to view him positively despite his own inner feelings of penitence.
The final couplets of stanza two concern the effects the previous poor night’s sleep have on the poet and both contain run on lines which help to slow the narrative and lessen the tension. The pathetic fallacy of ‘night ‘s dismay’ (line 33) as it ‘saddened and stunned the coming day'(Line 34) attributes feelings to night/day which they cannot hold, yet which may reflect the feelings of the poet as he wakes from his nightmare. The final couple again ends with a discordant half rhyme (me/calamity) and marks movement to the third and final stanza.
The third stanza begins with three rhyming couplets, followed by a quatrain and three further couplets. The first couplet almost repeats the metaphor of fiendish crowd found in stanza two (line 16), alluding this time to the dream the poet awakens from on the third night. This dream leaves him weeping ‘as I had been a child’ and calls to mind an vision of a man broken by his experiences. The use of this simile at this point also evokes the idea of re-birth and regeneration as the poet assumes a ‘milder mood’.
Once again, Coleridge uses alliteration to draw attention to the phrases ‘sufferings strange’ and ‘milder mood’ and, in particular, the word order inversion of ‘sufferings strange’ highlights the torments these dreams have focussed on the poet.
The words ‘deepliest’ (line 44) and ‘entempesting’ (line 45) appear to be portmanteau words and a product of the poet’s own imagination, yet they have the effect of raising the importance of Coleridge’s own remorse and unclear conscience. However, the lighter tone and more sedate pace of this stanza also suggest that he feels that his nightmares are, perhaps, disproportionate to his part in the wrongdoing.
Coleridge doubly protests his innocence in his lament ‘but wherefore, wherefore fall on me’ (line 50) and this repetition suggests that he does not truly feel that he is innocent of blame.
The final couplet of stanza three is a transcendent and poignant plea from the heart as the poet claims–in the romantic tradition–that love will absolve him of his sins, real and imagined.
Images of sleep/bed are also found within the poem and are often symbolic of death and oblivion. These images, when coupled with the religious and supernatural imagery may also represent the quasi-death of the habitual drug taker.
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3. Montgomery et al, 2000, Ways of Reading: 2nd Ed, Routledge, London.
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5. Cuddon, J. A. (Ed.), 1999, Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (4th Edition), Penguin Reference, London.