‘A Child’s Sleep’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a specific rhyme scheme of abcb defe, and so on. This pattern remains consistent throughout the piece and has been crafted in an effort to emphasize the simple, peaceful, and fluid nature of the child’s sleep, which is described throughout A Child’s Sleep. You can read the full poem A Child’s Sleep here.
Summary of A Child’s Sleep
The poem begins with the speaker, and mother of the child, entering into the room to view her sleeping daughter. The little girl is completely still and the mother is fighting between not wanting to disturb her and wanting to enjoy the calmness of the moment.
The speaker continues on to describe what she thinks the child’s sleep is like. She is so quiet and still, that she resembles a small forest. It is a magical place her daughter resides in, and she sees her as being the sole resident of the woods.
In the final stanzas of A Child’s Sleep the speaker moves to rouse her daughter, speaking her name. The sudden intrusion of sound is like a pebble dropping in a pond. The child hears her but does not wake up. She moves in her sleep and the goodness of her inner life is only clearer when she gets closer to consciousness.
In the last lines, the speaker moves to the window and looks out into the night at the moon. It is there, staring back at her. She feels as if the moon is reflecting her own emotions. It is “maternal” and understands all the love she feels for her daughter.
Analysis of A Child’s Sleep
I stood at the edge of my child’s sleep
I could not leave.
A Child’s Sleep begins with the speaker observing her child sleeping. This is to be the main theme of the poem, and the gentle action around which the speaker places herself and her emotions. In the first line, the speaker is coming to visit her child as she sleeps. She “edge[s]” up to her child’s bed, careful not to disturb her.
The speaker does not spend time describing her physical observations of the child but instead focuses on what she can hear and imagine. The first thing she does hear is the sound of her breathing. This is a tense, but also a peaceful moment. The speaker does not wish to disturb her child, but also can’t seem to pull herself away. She must find a balance between these two states.
She speaks of her child’s sleep as being something that she “could not enter.” There is no way for her to join her child in her particular sleep, she can only imagine what she might be dreaming. This is emphasized in the next line in which she states that she is unable to “leave.” This can be interpreted as meaning that she physically doesn’t feel as if she can leave the room, but also that she can’t stop imagining what might be going on in her child’s head.
Her sleep was a small wood,
acred in hours.
These imaginings, in which the speaker engages, take on a life of their own and make up the next two stanzas of this piece.
The speaker, in an effort to imagine the best possible world for her daughter, crafts dreams, and a type of sleep, which places the child in “a small wood.” She is not exactly dreaming of this place but instead, the image represents the child’s sleep as a “small wood.” The surroundings in which her daughter resides, and represents, smell vibrant like “flowers.” They are “dark,” but also “peaceful” and “sacred.” There is no real sense of time in this place. The child’s world has hours to spare.
And she was the spirit that lives
In the third stanza of A Child’s Sleep, the description of this child’s sleep is continued. The speaker has already crafted a world of magical peace for her daughter to reside in, but now she creates a new sense of being for her child.
The woods in which she resides might be notably beautiful, but nothing comes close to the child who was “the spirit that lives / in the heart of such woods.” If the woods are as special as the speaker described, then the child must be even more so.
The place in which she lives is “without time.” There is no pressure or concern for the future bearing down on her. Additionally, the world is without “history.” There is nothing to live up to or worry about from the past.
All that resides in the woods is “wordlessly good.” It is a general feeling of “goodness” which inhabits the place and radiates out from her daughter.
I spoke her name, a pebble dropped
cupping their soft light;
In the fourth stanza, the speaker decides she is going to rouse her daughter. She speaks her name and it is like a “pebble” dropping “in the still night.” The girl begins to “stir” and she opens her hands to “cup” the light. Her skin is radiating the goodness of the forest. It is only increasing as the girl moves closer to wakefulness.
then went to the window. The greater dark
with its face of moon.
In the final stanza of A Child’s Sleep, the speaker is finally able to turn away from her child. She moves to the window of the room and gazes out into the night. She is contemplating what it means to be at peace, and what it is to be a mother. As she is looking out the window she feels as if the “face of the moon” is gazing back in at her.
She feels the presence of the moon in the distance and knows that it understands her. It is “maternal” and “wise.”