Sleep Analysis

Sleep- Kenneth Slessor #

1. Context & Subject Matter - - Sleep #

This poem compares sleep with a number of aspects of life - the unconsciousness of sleep the preconsciousness of life in the womb, the act of sexual congress, the gestation period in the womb and birth. Just like going to sleep is an abandonment of self so is the sexual act of submission to our senses which can result in a sperm uniting with an egg to form a zygote developing into a foetus and later emerging as a human being facing the real world.

The repose of sleep can be a balm as Shakespeare expresses it so eloquently in Macbeth:

-the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast –

It took scientists 500 years to verify this:

Around 350 B.C., Aristotle wrote an essay, “On Sleep and Sleeplessness,” wondering just what we were doing and why. For the next 2,300 years no one had a good answer. In 1924 German psychiatrist Hans Berger invented the electroencephalograph, which records electrical activity in the brain, and the study of sleep shifted from philosophy to science.**

Why we sleep. The reason for sleep is the subject of a new study published this week in the journal Science. Using mice, researchers showed for the first time that the space between brain cells may increase during sleep, allowing the brain to flush out toxins that build up during waking hours.

“Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. It appears to be a completely different state,” said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, and a leader of the study. For centuries, scientists and philosophers have wondered why people sleep and how it affects the brain. Only recently have scientists shown that sleep is important for storing memories. In this study, Dr Nedergaard and her colleagues unexpectedly found that sleep may be also be the period when the brain cleanses itself of toxic molecules. RICHARD FARMER Crikey

Here is another viewpoint from Norman Doidge:

A recent study at the US University of Rochester showed that, during sleep, brain cells called glia open up special channels that allow waste products and toxic buildup in the brain – including the same proteins that build up in dementia – to be eliminated. On top of this, while we sleep, newly formed connections — between neurons that are created by the learning that we did the day before — become consolidated and made more durable.

Modern westerners have been progressively losing sleep because of inventions that estrange us from our true natures. The electric lightbulb and, of course, 24/7 internet, mean we are often so alert that we are not listening to our body’s signals when it is time for sleep. In the 19th century, the average western adult thought it was normal to get about nine hours of sleep. In North America, it is now closer to seven hours – and dropping. Recommendations vary, but some researchers say 8.5 hours is a better average to aim for.


Do you give yourself to me utterly,
Body and no-body, flesh and no-flesh,
Not as a fugitive, blindly or bitterly,
But as a child might, with no other wish?
Yes, utterly.
Then shall I bear you down my estuary,
Carry you and ferry you to burial mysteriously,
Take you and receive you,
Consume you, engulf you,
In the huge cave, my belly, lave you
With huger waves continually.
And you shall cling and clamber there
And slumber there, in that dumb chamber,
Beat with my blood’s beat, hear my heart move
Blindly in bones that ride above you,
Delve in my flesh, dissolved and bedded,
Through viewless valves embodied so–
Till daylight, the expulsion and awakening,
The riving and driving forth,
Life with remorseless forceps beckoning–
Pangs and betrayal of harsh birth.

II. Sound Effects - Sleep #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

Poets can make words sing by blending meaning and using sound to convey mood in an emotive and suggestive manner. Some poets deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy. The subtle repetition of vowel sounds (rhyme, assonance) can create a distinctive mood or ambience. The repetition of consonants (alliteration) can also obliquely affect the emotions of the responders.

In ‘Sleep’ sound is central to the effect of the poem. The use of assonance in vowel sounds particularly ‘u’ in so many words lengthens the lines of the poem. Sounds and rhythm combine to reinforce the theme aurally i.e. we can almost hear the soothing sound of sleep. Slessor described his use of sound devices as

“An experiment in the narcotic effect of the repetition of certain consonant structures and vowel sounds … the effect is also served by internal rhymes and assonance.”

Slessor uses an echoing repetition to give the ‘voice’ of sleep a soothing, almost hypnotic effect. While the soft sounds have a somnolent, soporific effect on us, the awakening harsh sounds have the opposite effect.

The contrast between the comforts of sleep and the pain of awakening is skilfully created by a number of important techniques. Words are interwoven by the similarity of their sounds. They do not need to rhyme to achieve this effect. The word ‘utterly’ in the first line part rhymes with ‘bitterly’ in the third. “Bitterly" closely resembles fugitive in the same line, and it also shares the ‘i’ sound with the words ‘give’, ‘with’ and ‘wish’. The ‘b’ sound in ‘bitterly’ is repeated in ‘body’, no-body’, ‘blindly’ and ‘but’. You will find many more examples in the poem. This echoing technique gives the ‘voice’ of sleep a soothing, soporific, almost hypnotic effect.

Slessor continues to use similar techniques in the second stanza and in addition repeats the word ‘you’ eight times. The ‘u’ sound is also found in ‘estuary’, ‘consume’, ‘huge’, ‘huger’ and ‘continually’, making 13 instances in all. The depth and resonance of this vowel is very appropriate for the imagery of a subterranean cave. As well as this we have similar sound matches in ‘carry’, ‘ferry’, ‘cave’, ‘laves’ and ‘waves’, ‘estuary’, ‘mysteriously’ and ‘continually’.

The third stanza maintains the sense of regular rhythm by continuing the use of these techniques. The words ‘cling’, ‘clamber’, ‘slumber’, ‘dumb’, and ‘chamber’ seem to merge into one another. The consonant ‘c’, d’ and ‘b’ are again used to good effect.

The last stanza gains much of its impact from the technical changes which create such a marked contrast to the preceding sounds. The harsh ‘a’ sound of ‘daylight’ has occurred only once in the previous stanza. The gentle rhythm is immediately destroyed by this sound and a new urgent rhythm takes over. The harsh ‘a’ sound is repeated in ‘awakening’ and ‘betrayal’ and these three words summarize Slessor’s thoughts in the stanza, namely that awakening occurs when Sleep betrays us to daylight, the enemy of peaceful unconsciousness.

Words like ‘riving’ and ‘driving’ or ‘remorseless forceps’ evoke an image of the forceful separation of mother and child. The baby, who was until now completely enclosed by the mother, is torn away. The world of innocence is lost, the bitter realities of the outside world must be explored.

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns - Sleep #

Like most good poetry, this poem can be read on a number of different levels and has many layers of meaning. Like Eliot, Slessor recognised that the poet has no monopoly on the meaning of his poems when in 1965 he stated:

“It is difficult for any writer to discuss his own verse, mainly because of the problem of deciding where the boundary lies between the personal associations and meanings which certain words produce in him and those which they produce in the reader.”¹

On a surface level it is a comparison of the abandonment of sleep compared to the surrender of s*xual consummation resulting in the formation of a foetus and its journey to life. Underlying meanings suggest the adversities of life and how we face and attempt to overcome them.

Do you give yourself - give = surrender, the sleeper is utterly giving themselves, of their own free will.

Body and no-body etc. embraces physical and non physical world; it is simple, child-like, and utterly trustworthy. The sleeper must be able to trust the sleep.

The response is simple, giving all, repeating what the Sleep has asked for, showing the enthral it is under the influence of. The italicised response, isolates the response from the question.

From this, the point of surrender, we see the journey of the sleeper from the sleep to the awakening. This can also be interpreted as the journey to the womb from the ovaries for a foetus, through growth and development, to birth.

“We know Slessor’s stated meaning in ‘Sleep’ and, as indicated, the poem permits us to seek additional ones. But with whatever we leave the poem, we are touched with an almost physical awareness the poet’s purpose has been precisely served by the technical devices he has chosen. It may be an exaggeration to say that we, as readers, have been mesmerised by Slessor’s blending of idea, sound, and rhythm. It is much less so to suggest that in our reading out loud of Sleep’s enticement of the sleeper, we have not escaped the lulling effect of the verse.

“So imagined, Sleep, the state of unconsciousness, is personified as the mother, and the sleeper, her child. And the child’s response to the mother in the first stanza - “Yes, utterly,” - is a consenting to the total immersion of ‘body and no-body, flesh and no-flesh’ (that is to say, body and mind) within the enveloping ocean of unconsciousness.

“Certainly, the poem allows other possibilities of interpretation. Sleep, for example, might be thought of as a woman addressing her lover, and the poem as a sexual expression of their love. Of course, also, in that the sexual act relates actually to birth and life and its climax poetically to death, other combinations of meaning present themselves.

The philosophical nature of life is that it is harsh and remorseless; once you wake up or are born, or are away from the fantasy of being with a lover, you are subject to reality and time.

Slessor concludes his poem with a sense of pain and loss. Poems like “Sleep” add to an overall impression of Slessor’s basic despair with mankind’s lot.


Structure*: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc*

In ‘Sleep’ Slessor makes sleep the speaker of the poem and so it takes on a human presence. Sleep is like a mother asking to which we gladly and willingly respond, just s a tired child would.

It is this yielding and sleep’s response to it that form the structure of the poem. In the first line sleep asks a question describing the willing abandonment to which the sleeper must agree. In the next three lines, ‘Sleep’ - Sleepdescribes in detail exactly how we must yield.

The remainder of the poem consists of the promises made after the sleeper’s reply, ‘Yes utterly’. The structure hinges on the verbs describing the action and the words that link the promises.

The sea is a central image - giving oneself up to sleep is described in terms of being engulfed by water.

At the end of stanza two, sleep is personified when the ‘cave’ we fall into is described as ‘my belly’. The relationship between sleep and the sleeper, suggested through this image, is that between a womb and the foetus.

The final stanza deals with the experience of awakening to daylight. In contrast to the protective and nurturing existence within sleep, our return to the present life is seen in terms of a ‘betrayal’.

V. LANGUAGE: - Sleep #

Approach*: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,
Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases. *

The poem begins with a question with the simple response , giving all, repeating what the Sleep has asked for, showing its enthral. The response is italicised, isolating it from the question.

Slessor repeats the word ‘you’ eight times which personalises the poem for each of us

Archaic and arcane (seldom used) language. #

huge cave - a refuge, a dark place of safety. Evokes primitive images. Also we can see the water imagery of a cave by the sea, with waves crashing into it, which is solidified in the next line. We also get an image of the ‘Cave of Morpheus’, which was a great sleeper’s cave, where there were sleepers under enchantment.

my belly – the uterus, a source of life, but also the vulnerable part of the body. Continues the foetus journey image. This can be a metaphorical image of sleep, or a literal image of pregnancy, or can even be seen as a metaphor of sexual union, all of which suggest safety.

lave is to wash; suggests great tenderness, and love. Baptism is traditionally a ’lave’. Shortening of lavatory.

huger waves* continually*- we see waves of love, or sleep, or, when pregnant, the contraction of the muscles in the womb, or the process of intercourse.

clamber - the child moving and kicking, or the sleeper is restless and trying to hold onto sleep.

Viewless valves - the internal organs are like a great machine…

Embodied - to be given flesh and trade into substance. So deep is the sleep that is almost becomes a substance. The child grows towards being born as full child. Note conception of child from sex cells to zygote to embryo etc.

expulsion a negative way to push sleeper/baby/lover out: c/f The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. (from somewhere they were safe to face reality of death)

riving- to be ripped away from sleep, lover, womb - life is personified as a grim surgeon that pulls the baby out with forceps; that is, forces the baby out.

pang - a sudden pain.

Synonyms for how Slessor lulls us or hypnotises us.

Enthral, Enchant, Captivate, Transfix, Spell-bind, Hypnotise, Intrigue, Enrapt, Mesmerise, Fixate, Haunt, Resonate, Enamour, Be-witch, Echo, Haunt, Narcoleptic, Fascinate, rivet, Charm, Entrap, Lure, Entice, Seduce, Ensnare,

VI. Evaluation: - - Sleep #

Some critics consider this one of Slessor’s most accomplished poem where he has blended sound and meaning masterfully to convey a powerful message.