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Analysis of the Poem 'Sleeping Standing Up' by Elizabeth Bishop

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Elizabeth Bishop and a Summary of 'Sleeping Standing Up'

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem 'Sleeping Standing Up' was first published in the North and South collection of her poetry in 1946, her debut book.

The themes within the poem are:

  • the potential for darkness within the dreams or subconscious of people,
  • the lost land of childhood, and
  • the blending of folklore with modernity.

Bishop had lived in France during the mid-1930s and will have seen the rise of Nazi ideology in Germany. There are militaristic references throughout 'Sleeping Standing Up.'

She also had a fascination with sleeping and dreaming, which is evident throughout her poetry. She once described herself as:

"a sleeping mouse dreaming of nibbling away to measure the circumference of a vast dream cheese."

Her poems ‘Sleeping on the Ceiling’, ‘The Weed’, ‘Love Lies Sleeping’ and ‘A Summer’s Dream’ also display a tension between the world of the subconscious and the ‘real’ tangible world.

'Sleeping Standing Up' contains four stanzas of rhyming sestets. The rhyme scheme is abcacb throughout the poem and consists mostly of full rhymes such as away/day, do/through, with one exception in the final stanza: moss/was. More on this in the stanza-by-stanza analysis.

There is a vague metrical pattern to the poem, with the first, fourth and sixth lines of each stanza consistently the longest. The first lines are generally hexameter (6 feet of two syllables), with one exception, in the third stanza. The fourth lines are all pentameter (5 feet), with one exception, in the final stanza, where the fourth line is hexameter. And the sixth lines are all pentameter, apart from the last line of the first stanza. As we can see then, there is a loose metre (meter in American English) to the poem, but this is in no way fixed.

Bishop uses a variety of poetic devices, including metaphor and enjambment, when the end of one line (or stanza) runs on into the next, adding momentum and maintaining sense.

There is a healthy smattering of caesura in the poem too, certain the lines being broken up by punctuation. This can be seen in a line that has been pulled out as a quote from the poem, ‘The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do’. This is a classic medial caesura, as the line is being spliced through the middle with a comma.

Overall, a rewarding poem for the reader. The rhyme scheme brings some familiarity and closure while the language lingers on and the themes bring an extra intellectual challenge.

'Sleeping Standing Up'

'Sleeping Standing Up'

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

First Stanza

In the first stanza of 'Sleeping Standing Up,' the use of the word ‘we’ makes the reader (and the speaker and everyone else) complicit with the happenings in the poem. This could be linked to the idea that evil can prevail when good people do nothing, that we are to an extent, helpless, and at the mercy of other people’s darker dreams.

The use of ‘we’, or ‘us’ is repeated in the first line of each stanza—this is similar to anaphora, where the first part of a sentence is repeated. In the context of 'Sleeping Standing Up', this repetition binds together concepts in different stanzas and places emphasis on the idea of complicity.

Things start to shift in the first stanza, turning ‘through ninety dark degrees’. ‘Dark’, as in night-time, but also dark as in the troubling forces that can emerge from the human mind.

The bureau, a place of order in the day, now ‘lies’ on the wall. Here, ‘lies’ can be read as the bureau reclining on the wall, but also that it ‘lies’—it is deceitful and untrustworthy. Note that bureau is also interchangeable with the running of a country, or bureaucracy, a nod towards the rise of dangerous and powerful politics during the time this poem was written.

The repetition and morphing of ‘lie’ into ‘lies’ and finally into ‘rise’ (through the assonance of the ‘ie’ sound) brings home the idea of untrustworthiness and danger of dreaming.

In the final line, we enter a fairytale-like setting and thoughts become ‘a forest of thick-set trees’. This is a step into another world via metaphor, but not one of joy or freedom, more of encroachment and danger. The forest was always a source of fear in Northern European folklore traditions and this continues in Bishop’s poem.

Second Stanza

The second stanza begins with what are probably the most famous two lines of the poem:

‘The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do / so many a dangerous thing’.

The surreal metaphor deviates from typical depictions of dreams as places of escape or pleasure, and paints a picture of dangerous invincibility.

It is in the first line of the second stanza that we see Bishop’s use of the medial caesura, the breaking up of a line with punctuation, in this case a comma, challenging the reader.

  • These caesurae, or pauses, fragment the lines throughout the second stanza—‘all camouflaged, and ready to go through’, ‘the swiftest streams, or up a ledge’, ‘of crumbling shale, while plates and trappings ring’. It is almost as if the real world is breaking up, mimicked by the dissolution of four out of the six lines.

There is also a proliferation of the ‘ing’ sound, ‘thing’, ‘chugging’, ‘crumbling’, ‘trappings’, ‘ring’. This repetitive active suffix gives the stanza a strange echo, while also mimicking the menacing noises of an armored car, with the ‘chugging’ seemingly reverberating throughout.

A parallel could also be drawn between the scattered and repeated ‘ing’ and the flitting motion of the eyes as one enters REM sleep, the period associated with dreaming.

Third Stanza

The third stanza begins with a violent em dash, which mimics and emphasizes the first word ‘through’. This em dash and the hyphen between turret and slits are also suggestive of the topic at hand—the punctuation mimics the turret-slits through which ‘we’ are looking.

Again, we as readers are inculcated in this watching. The ‘crumbs and pebbles’ are a direct nod to the European fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, who were left in the woods by their poverty-stricken parents and found their way back home (once) by laying a trail of pebbles which shone in the moonlight.

Hansel and Gretel was one of the folkloric tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, in their book, originally titled in German Kinder- und Hausmärchen.

Furthermore, these folk tales were used as propaganda during the Nazi reign in Germany, supposedly signifying racial purity and used to emphasise their anti-semitic messages.

So, with this in mind, ‘the riveted flanks’ of a modern, militaristic regime sit alongside the fairy tale ‘green forest floor’, both of which have been dreamt up, contrived to bring danger and suffering.

We can see that this danger is highlighted by the alliterative ‘f’ sounds in ‘flanks’, ‘forest floor’ and ‘followed’. As in a large proportion of this poem, the third stanza contains lots of enjambment, with only one punctuated end-stopped line.

This suggests an overflowing of reality into the world of dream—the lines, like the psyche, are dangerously liberated from typical pauses and delineations.

Contrast this with the final line which is punctuated by a comma then a semicolon, creating a jarring effect. The line then spills over the end of the stanza—‘stanzaic enjambment’—into the next.

It is as if the ‘ugly tanks’ are so vile and powerful that they cannot be stopped, they ride through and into the last stanza.

Fourth Stanza

The fourth and final stanza continues with the repetitive ‘we’ as seen throughout the poem.

The children from stanza three are being tracked and in gruesome fashion, also being ground down. This is the future disappearing before our eyes. The tanks roll on, with stupid people in charge—the military, the politicians, or all of us?

There is an abundance of sibilance in this stanza, the menacing, hissing effect of multiple ‘s’ sounds, as in ‘Sometimes’, ‘disappeared’, ‘dissolving’, ‘moss’, ‘sometimes’, ‘fast’, ‘stupidly’, ‘steered’, ‘past’, and arguably ‘was’.

Interestingly, the final rhyme of ‘moss’ with ‘was’, is the only off-rhyme in the entire poem, a discombobulating ending, without closure. The full rhyme disappears and dissolves much like the crumbs of pebbles, and goes missing, like the unfound cottage of the final line.

There is, then, no return home, no return to the source of comfort and innocence.

This stands in opposition to the fairy tale ending depicted in the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the evil stepmother dies and the children return to the family home with the witches' riches.


© 2020 Andrew Spacey