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Edgar Allan Poe's "The Sleeper"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Introduction and Text of "The Sleeper"

Edgar Allan Poe remarked about his poem, "The Sleeper," "[i]n the higher qualities of poetry, it is better than 'The Raven'—but there is not one man in a million who could be brought to agree with me in this opinion" ("Poe as a Poet"). This poem, which symbolically refers to death as "sleep," consists of three movements, constructed primarily of couplets and tercets.

The Sleeper

At midnight, in the month of June,
I stand beneath the mystic moon.
An opiate vapor, dewy, dim,
Exhales from out her golden rim,
And softly dripping, drop by drop,
Upon the quiet mountain top,
Steals drowsily and musically
Into the universal valley.
The rosemary nods upon the grave;
The lily lolls upon the wave;
Wrapping the fog about its breast,
The ruin moulders into rest;
Looking like Lethe, see! the lake
A conscious slumber seems to take,
And would not, for the world, awake.
All Beauty sleeps!—and lo! where lies
Irene, with her Destinies!

Oh, lady bright! can it be right—
This window open to the night?
The wanton airs, from the tree-top,
Laughingly through the lattice drop—
The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,
Flit through thy chamber in and out,
And wave the curtain canopy
So fitfully—so fearfully—
Above the closed and fringéd lid
’Neath which thy slumb’ring soul lies hid,
That, o’er the floor and down the wall,
Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall!
Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear?
Why and what art thou dreaming here?
Sure thou art come o’er far-off seas,
A wonder to these garden trees!
Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!
Strange, above all, thy length of tress,
And this all solemn silentness!

The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
Which is enduring, so be deep!
Heaven have her in its sacred keep!
This chamber changed for one more holy,
This bed for one more melancholy,
I pray to God that she may lie
Forever with unopened eye,
While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!

My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
As it is lasting, so be deep!
Soft may the worms about her creep!
Far in the forest, dim and old,
For her may some tall vault unfold—
Some vault that oft hath flung its black
And wingéd pannels fluttering back,
Triumphant, o’er the crested palls
Of her grand family funerals—

Some sepulchre, remote, alone,
Against whose portals she hath thrown,
In childhood, many an idle stone—
Some tomb from out whose sounding door
She ne’er shall force an echo more,
Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!
It was the dead who groaned within.

Reading of "The Sleeper"

Commentary

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Sleeper" takes as its subject a beautiful woman in death, the subject that Poe claimed in his essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," to be the most poetic.

First Movement: Observation in a Cemetery

At midnight, in the month of June,
I stand beneath the mystic moon.
An opiate vapor, dewy, dim,
Exhales from out her golden rim,
And softly dripping, drop by drop,
Upon the quiet mountain top,
Steals drowsily and musically
Into the universal valley.
The rosemary nods upon the grave;
The lily lolls upon the wave;
Wrapping the fog about its breast,
The ruin moulders into rest;
Looking like Lethe, see! the lake
A conscious slumber seems to take,
And would not, for the world, awake.
All Beauty sleeps!—and lo! where lies
Irene, with her Destinies!

The speaker begins by elucidating the confines of his immediate environment: he is standing in a cemetery at midnight in June observing the moon, which he calls "the mystic moon" and then asserts that the orb "exhales" "[a]n opiate vapour, dewy, dim" from "her golden rim." The mixed metaphor here shocks the senses with the attempt to personify the moon while simultaneously allowing it to keep its "rim." The speaker then remarks about the "rosemary" that is nodding over a grave, while a lily is lolling on a wave. Poe is jingling as usual! Wrapping up the movement, the speaker introduces the beautiful, dead woman whom he will portray, who "lies / With casement open to the skies, / Irene with her destinies!"

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Second Movement: The Beautiful, Dead Lady

Oh, lady bright! can it be right—
This window open to the night?
The wanton airs, from the tree-top,
Laughingly through the lattice drop—
The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,
Flit through thy chamber in and out,
And wave the curtain canopy
So fitfully—so fearfully—
Above the closed and fringéd lid
’Neath which thy slumb’ring soul lies hid,
That, o’er the floor and down the wall,
Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall!
Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear?
Why and what art thou dreaming here?
Sure thou art come o’er far-off seas,
A wonder to these garden trees!
Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!
Strange, above all, thy length of tress,
And this all solemn silentness!

The speaker then addresses the beautiful, dead lady, asking her, "O, lady bright, can it be right, / This lattice open to the night?" He wonders if the opening to the tomb is appropriate; it motivates him to imagine the dead body within, however, as the wind rustles "the curtain-canopy." The speaker strangely refers to the dead body as a "slumbering soul." One would hope that he is using the term "soul" in its generic definition of "individual." If the literal soul were still within the body, it would not be dead. The very definition of death includes the fact that the soul has left the body. This flaw seriously damages the poem and the poet's credibility. If he gets such a basic fact so wrong, what other misinformation might he be asserting?

This error alone would cause those millions to disagree with Poe's estimation that this poem is superior to "The Raven." The remainder of the movement summons "ghosts" of shadows swept in by the wind that continues to rustle through the tomb. He asks the beautiful, dead lady, "O, lady dear, hast thou no fear?" And he wants to determine what she is dreaming. He oddly claims that she has arrived from "o'er far-off seas." Being a stranger to the area, she is "a wonder to these garden-trees!" Her "pallor," her style of clothing, the length of her hair, plus the sustained "all-solemn silentness," all make her an anomalous intruder.

Third Movement: Deep Sleep

The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
Which is enduring, so be deep!
Heaven have her in its sacred keep!
This chamber changed for one more holy,
This bed for one more melancholy,
I pray to God that she may lie
Forever with unopened eye,
While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!

My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
As it is lasting, so be deep!
Soft may the worms about her creep!
Far in the forest, dim and old,
For her may some tall vault unfold—
Some vault that oft hath flung its black
And wingéd pannels fluttering back,
Triumphant, o’er the crested palls
Of her grand family funerals—

Some sepulchre, remote, alone,
Against whose portals she hath thrown,
In childhood, many an idle stone—
Some tomb from out whose sounding door
She ne’er shall force an echo more,
Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!
It was the dead who groaned within.

The speaker pushes his symbol of "sleep" for death to the limit in the third movement; he claims that the lady "sleeps," and he wishes for her a sleep, that "be deep!" But he also introduces an unusual wish as he asserts, "I pray to GOD that she may lie / Forever with unclosed eye!" After expressing this peculiar desire, he again pushes his "sleep" symbol: "My love, she sleeps. O, may her sleep, / As it is lasting, so be deep!" The speaker then recalls that "In childhood, many an idle stone" was thrown against the family sepulcher, and the dead within "groaned" because of the impolite intrusion on their sacred solemnity. He thus appropriately hopes that this beautiful, dead lady need not suffer such indignities.

Edgar Allan Poe - Commemorative Stamp

Edgar Allan Poe - Commemorative Stamp

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Sleeper," what are the "indignities," from which he hopes she does not suffer?

Answer: The speaker remembers that "In childhood, many an idle stone" was thrown against the family sepulcher, and the dead within "groaned" because of the impolite intrusion on their sacred solemnity. He, therefore, hopes that this special dead lady will not suffer from that intrusive stone-throwing.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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