Edgar Allan Poe's "The Sleeper"

Updated on September 19, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

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!"

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

Source

Life Sketch of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was labeled "The Jingle Man" because of the profusion of riming words employed in his poems. Likely, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who first assigned that appellation to Poe.

Introduction and Excerpt from "The Bells"

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, and died on October 7, 1849, in Baltimore. His literary influence has been noted world wide. He excelled as a literary critic, and his short stories are credited with beginning the genre of detective fiction, as he is hailed as the father of mystery writing. But his poetry has received a mixed bag of critical reviews, often denigrating Poe's style. And too often his complicated and fitful life story has taken center stage before his poetry, which when thoughtfully considered does reveal more than the derisive status as a riming monster.

The Jingle Man

Poe was labeled "The Jingle Man" because of the profusion of riming words employed in his poems. Likely, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who first assigned that appellation to Poe; however, Walt Whitman also opined that Poe overworked rime as a poetic technique. Poe's poem, "The Bells," is undoubtedly the piece of work that led his contemporaries to label him the "jingle man."

Over the years, critics have often been dismissive of Poe, just as Emerson was:

. . . critical opinion of Poe’s verse has been mixed. Ralph Waldo Emerson dismissed him as “The Jingle Man,” Jorge Luis Borges called him “a miniature Tennyson,” and Henry James grumbled that “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive state of reflection.” T. S. Eliot conceded that Poe possessed a powerful intellect but asserted that it was “the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty.” W. B. Yeats liked a few lines but thought most of the oeuvre “vulgar and commonplace,” and E. L. Doctorow compared “The Raven” to Ravel’s “Bolero”: “rhythmic and hypnotic on first hearing, a mere novelty everafter.” (from John S. Sledge's "Defending ‘The Jingle Man’")

Despite the numerous nay-sayers regarding Poe, his admirers have not been shy about proclaiming their affection for Poe's works, for example, William Carlos William asserted that the American literary canon is grounded in Poe only and "on solid ground." Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire were also big fans of Poe's writing.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Excerpt from "The Bells"

I

Hear the sledges with the bells-
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rime,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells. . . .

To read "The Bells" in its entirety and also see how it actually appears on the page, please visit The Academy of American Poets. The HubPages' word processing system does not allow non-traditional spacing.

The Philosophical Poem, "Eldorado"

Poe's "Eldorado" alludes to a legend that circulated popularly in the nineteenth century. Readers will notice again Poe’s delight with rime, but certainly there is more to the poem than rime.

It becomes philosophically universal by the last stanza which reveals a bit of sage advice that the paradise, for which Eldorado is a metaphor, is found in the search, and one must "ride boldly" in order to reach that paradise.

Eldorado

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow—
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’

‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’

Other Writing Genres

In most cases, it takes a long time for a literary reputation to be established. Although Poe’s merit as a writer was debated in his own day, and still is in some quarters today, he has definitely taken his place as a writer of mystery.

Short Stories

Poe’s short stories "The Gold Bug," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," and "The Purloined Letter" all had a lasting effect on the mystery genre, and some credit Poe as the inventor of detective fiction.

Poe, like Thomas Hardy, considered himself primarily a poet and preferred writing poetry, but he found that he could make money writing prose, so, as Thomas Hardy turned to writing novels, Poe turned to writing short stories, and they both were able to bring in some income with their prose writing.

The Philosophy of Composition

Poe also wrote essays in literary criticism, and his "The Philosophy of Composition" reveals his favorite subject, or at least, the subject he considers most poetic: "the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." This reasoning certainly helps account for his predilection for melancholy of the sort we find in "The Raven."

Despite Poe’s reputation as the father of detective or mystery fiction, to experience the real Poe, readers must also experience his poetry and when they do, they will have to admit that he was much more than his contemporaries saw; he was much more profound than a mere "jingle man."

Poe and Drugs

So much has been made of Poe’s alcohol and drug use that most people associate his addictions too closely with his art. Of course, many artists in all the arts have fallen victim to intoxicants and drug euphoria.

And it appears that the artist’s life is always more interesting to the casual observer than is his/her art. As is the case with most sensitive artists who have had the misfortune to abuse artificial intoxication, Poe as a dark figure in literature is garnered more from his biography than from his actual writing.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Submit a Comment

No comments yet.

working

This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

Show Details
Necessary
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Features
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Marketing
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Statistics
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)