Edgar Allan Poe's "The Sleeper"
Edgar Allan Poe
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.
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").
The poem, which symbolically refers to death as "sleep," consists of movements, constructed primarily of rimed couplets and tercets.
First Movement: "At midnight, in the month of June"
The speaker begins his drama 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!"
Second Movement: "O, lady bright, can it be right"
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: "The lady sleeps. O, may her sleep"
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.
Reading of Poe's "The Sleeper"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes