‘Lioness Asleep’ by Babette Deutsch is a two stanza, fourteen-line sonnet that follows the rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFGEFG. Deutsch has chosen to separate the first half of the sonnet from the second, thereby intensifying the “twist” in the story. If not for this break, and then rearranging of the last sestet, the poem would fit precisely into the mold of a Shakespearean sonnet. You can read the full poem Lioness Asleep here.
The poem begins with the lioness entering an intensely realistic dream after having eaten. The meal has sent her a few moments of bliss in which she imagines herself dozing in the desert of Africa. It is there that she is able to live the life that she wants.
It is not clear in the first stanza that she is actually living in an enclosure, this twist is revealed in the second stanza.
It begins with the image of the bars of her cage, and the onlookers, vanishing as the lioness sinks deeper into her dreams. There, she is able to forget about the sawdust that acts as her bedding and ignore the fleas that attack her. This dream soon lifts though and she is only left with the memory of the bliss she experienced. This desire for this pleasure is so great that if she could, she would “bound” at this “freedom” and drink it “like blood.” She would, if she was able, put her whole heart into attaining freedom.
Analysis of Lioness Asleep
The first stanza of this piece begins in media res. The poet thrusts the reader directly into the scene without preamble or extraneous explanation.
The scene into which the poem opens depicts a lioness who is lazily content after a meal. If the reader did not have access to the title, “Lioness Asleep,” it would be much harder to understand what was taking place in these first lines.
The speaker describes the lioness as being “Content” now that she has finished the meat off of the “bleeding bone.” Some unnamed animal has fallen victim to the predator and has served to satisfy her. She is laying on the ground and is completely at ease with the world as the bone is “swept / Out of her reach.”
In this first stanza, it is unclear why the bone is being moved from her reach. Perhaps, one could speculate, another member of the lioness’ pride has chosen to chew on it, perhaps a younger cub. Additionally, one could assume that a scavenger of some kind, such as a wild dog or vulture, has taken it from her. It becomes clear on a second reading that this unknown creature was most likely a keeper, clearing the bones from her enclosure.
Either way, she has found some moments of peace in which she can sink into a “blonde,” (a reference to the color of her hair) “void.” There, “she slept” and slept like a “child.” It is as if all of her concerns, at least for that moment are gone.
The next lines work in two different ways, when reading for the first time they seem to give a description to what is around her. But when read a second time, the lines take on an element of despairing sadness that must be addressed. One the first reading a reader will want to imagine this great creature out in the deserts of Africa. There she is sleeping and her “sandy flanks” are blending in with the sand on the ground. As she breathes they “heave slow.”
The speaker also describes her paws and how they are turned “inward,” in a position of relaxation. All around the lion the,
Waves of desert silence seemed to flow.
After reading the first stanza, it is important to take note of a very important word, “seemed.” All is not what it seems to be.
The second stanza zooms there reader back from the scene, changing the perspective, and the emotions related to the poem. Suddenly, the lioness is not on the plains of Africa, she is trapped behind bars in a zoo.
The dream in which she has found contentment gives her the illusion the “crowd” that always watches her is “gone.” Additionally, the “bars were gone” and “the cage / Thinned into air.” Her whole world is changing, and even if she never lived there, she is able to picture freedom.
The dream brings further improvements to her circumstances as all of the “sawdust” that would have been used to create bedding, and the “fleas / Winnoed by a sleep to nothing.”Her sleep has caused these parts of her life to vanish, they “winnoed,” or was degraded into nothingness.
The dream is quick to end in the third line of the second stanza. After she has eaten, the reality of her situation sets back in. The “absence” of the world in which she wants to live “possessed her,” but she Is not angry. The “bliss” of these moments is stronger than the “rage” that should follow. It would, the speaker says, if possible, compel her to “seize / This ghostly freedom” and drink it “like blood.”
The lioness is a prisoner of her own dreams, she is, as the speaker states, “slumber’s prisoner.” It is easy to imagine how any creature, human or not, could be possessed by the specter of a different life when their own is intolerable.
While this poem works in its a poignant description of a beautiful creature in captivity, it can be expanded and used as a metaphor for any who may feel trapped in their own situation. It is likely that the poet wrote this poem with those in mind, most likely women, who are unable to break free of their domestic lives and escape to the worlds they dream of.
About Babette Deutsch
Babette Deutsch was born in September of 1895 in New York, New York. While enrolled as a student at Barnard College she first started publishing poetry. Her poems appeared in the New Republic. Soon after her graduation, in 1919, she published her first volume of poetry, Banners.
Her work is connected with the Imagist movement, a type of poetry that is dedicated to describing images with simple language and great detail. Deutsch’s work in particular is noted for its lyrical nature and “crisp…imagery.”
Throughout her life, Deutsch published ten collections of poetry, some of which are volumes of her collected work that she selected. Additionally, she published four novels, a number of books of prose on poetry, and many translations. She is also known for her volumes of children’s literature. Working in tandem with her husband she completed Russian language translations as well as the editing of German and Russian poetry.
Throughout her life, Babette taught at the New School for Social Research and Columbia University.