Variations on the Word Sleep

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Nationality: Canadian

Margaret Atwood is a well-loved contemporary Canadian author.

She’s written numerous fiction, nonfiction, and poetry books.

Variations on the Word Sleep‘ by Margaret Atwood gets deep into the mind of the speaker and her desire to be one with the one she loves. At points throughout the poem, she uses terms that are usually used in a sexual context, but she makes it clear that her desire to be one with her lover goes far beyond the physical realm.

She desires to be one with him in mind and soul. And the innermost part of a human being, lies the subconscious, the part of every person’s mind that surfaces during sleep in the form of dreams. A person’s dreams are often non-sensical, and yet they stem for experiences and thoughts that lie deep in the unconscious. This speaker longs to tap into that deepest, most intimate part of the person she loves. She begins by simply stating that she wishes she could watch her lover sleep. It seems strange at first, and a little disconcerting, but as she begins to explain her reasoning, the reader can identify with her.

After having expressed her desire to watch her lover sleep, she goes a little deeper, and wishes that she could enter into his sleep with him. From here, the speaker imagines what she might find if she were in fact able to enter into his dreams. Her description of her desires allows the reader to see a pure and true heart, one that loves fully without holding back. There are few ways to describe this kind of love, but this speaker is able to put her longing into words so unique and so moving that the reader feels he is able to embody the very emotions the speaker portrays. ‘Variations on the Word Sleep‘ is more than just a love poem. It is a poem that seeks to enter the conscious and the subconscious by exploring one person’s earnest desire to know another person at the very depths of his soul.

Variations on the Word Sleep by Margaret Atwood

Variations on the Word Sleep Analysis

Stanza One

I would like to watch you sleeping,
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

In the first stanza of ‘Variations on the Word Sleep‘, the speaker expresses her first desire. It is a simple one, to watch her lover sleep. The reader tends to feel immediately disconcerted at this thought. The idea of someone watching another person sleep seems odd. The reader questions the intentions of the speaker. The author creates this sense of suspicion on purpose. The reader must not trust the speaker immediately, for the speaker must prove her heart and intentions through the words of ‘Variations on the Word Sleep‘. In the second line, the speaker seems to accept that she may never be able to watch this person sleep. She does not give a reason, so that is left to the imagination of the reader. For some reason, the speaker’s desire may not be fulfilled.

Nevertheless, she continues to describe her desires in detail. She states again, in line three, that she “would like to watch” him sleeping. Then, she takes her desire a step deeper by saying, “I would like to sleep with you”. At first, it may seem that she is speaking of a sexual encounter, but she soon reveals that she is talking about something much deeper than that. She explains what she means by expressing a desire to sleep with him. What she really wants is “to enter” into his sleep. She describes sleep as coming over him in a “smooth dark wave” and she wishes to cover herself with that same wave.

This is revealed when she imagines that it “slides over [her] head”. It is unclear why this speaker wants to enter into sleep with someone else. She could enter into her own sleep, but that is not what she dreams of. She wants to sleep with this person in a different way. She wishes they could actually share the same sleep. It is an interesting thought, because it would seem that people enter into an entirely different world when they sleep. They enter a world that is entirely comprised of their own subconscious, and this speaker desires to enter into the subconscious of another person.

Stanza Two

and walk with you through that lucent
towards your worst fear

In stanza two of ‘Variations on the Word Sleep‘, the speaker continues to describe what she longs for when she says that she wants to sleep with her lover. She expresses her desire to “walk with [him] through that lucent wavering forest of bluegreen leaves”. She begins to imagine what this man’s dreams might look like, and she wishes she were there, walking with him. She describes his dreams as have a “watery sun” and “three moons”. She clearly believes that he is entering an entirely different world when he sleeps. His mind slips away, and he is no longer in this solar system. He is conscious in an entirely different realm, one that she cannot get to. She longs to go there with him, to walk with him “towards the cave where [he] must descend”.

She does not explain the reason that he must do this, but she knows that he must and she wishes that she could be there to walk by his side. But his subconscious is a place that is inaccessible to her, and she can do nothing other than imagine that she is there. With the last line of this stanza, she finally explains the real reason for her desire to be with him. She knows that when he sleeps, he must face his worst fear, and she cannot bear the thought of his facing it alone. She does not reveal to the readers just what this fear is, but it suddenly becomes apparent that her real reason for wanting to enter into his sleep, is to protect him from whatever it is that he finds there.

Stanza Three

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
again & become
the boat that would row you back

With this stanza of ‘Variations on the Word Sleep‘, the speaker expounds upon her desire to protect her lover from his own subconscious. She wants to be the one that is there to help him overcome his fears. She expresses this in a variety of ways. She wants to be the one to give him “the silver branch” and “the small white flower” and “the one word that will protect” him. These things all symbolize a glimmer of hope. That is what the speaker wishes she could be for her lover, a glimmer of hope in the midst of his fears. She wants to be the one that gives him the strength and the will to press on and overcome his fears. She also wants to be at his side as he faces them. She says that she wants to be “at the center” of his grief. This is a rare and genuine kind of love.

One person can express love for another in many ways, but these words express how dearly the speaker loves this man. Most people avoid grief. They do not wish to be at the center of it. Some people wish they could make another person’s grief subside, but few people wish to actually enter into it, to feel it with another person, and to be there to help see that person through. This is the kind of love the speaker has. She wants to go to the center of his grief with him, so that when he has faced it, she can become “the boat that would row [him] back”. She does not wish to simply keep him from his grief. She knows that he must face it. But she does want to be by his side, to face it with him, and to bring him safely back when he has faced the sadness before him.

Stanza Four

carefully, a flame
it as easily as breathing in

In stanza four of ‘Variations on the Word Sleep’, the speaker continues to express her desires to see him through his grief. She wants to hold him “in two cupped hands” though he is like a flame in his grief. She is sure to be scorched by the flame, but she wishes to hold him through his pain anyway. That is why she goes to him while he sleeps and wishes to be with him. She notes that he enters into his sleep and his pain “as easily as breathing in” and she knows that as much as she longs for it, she cannot go with him. She expresses that she “would like to be the air” that she might actually inhabit him. She only wishes for a moment to be in him, to know what he is feeling, to experience the pain with him. She wishes that in his pain, she would “be that unnoticed”. This is an ironic part of ‘Variations on the Word Sleep‘. All along, she has longed to be his savior. Now, she wishes that she would go unnoticed.

Stanza Five

I would like to be the air
& that necessary.

The final stanza of ‘Variations on the Word Sleep’ reveals her true love for him. She does not wish to be there for him because she wants him to notice what she has done for him. She does not want to be with him in his grief so that he can thank her or remember her for it. This is true sacrificial love. She longs to be with him in his grief for no gain of her own. She is purely interested in helping him. She wants to be as necessary to him as the air he breathes, but she does not require him to notice how much he needs her. She longs only to be there for him in his time of need and grief.

Margaret Atwood Background

Margaret Atwood is one of the most well-known Canadian writers. She has written many poems and novels. One of her most famous novels, The Handmaid’s Tale, tells the story of a world gone awry through a woman’s perspective. One of her most famous poems, Half Hanged Mary, tells the story of one of her ancestors, a woman who was hung for witchcraft but never died. Given the topics and dark nature of many of her works, it is fascinating that she was also able to compose a poem so deeply sentimental, and so filled with love. This reveals the complexity of Atwood’s character and mind. She can write dark and cynical works as well as deeply moving, sentimental works.

Little is published about Margaret Atwood’s personal life, but she did have two marriages. One lasted only five years, and the other man she is with to this day, at the age of 73. Thus, she has some authority to speak on matters of love. She has loved and lost, and she has loved and kept. Her words on the matter are so moving, that some have even claimed that she changed their lives. Atwood responds to this in an interview with The Telegraph.  She says, “People come up to you and say, ‘Your writing has changed my life”. Atwood does not accept this. She counters,  What they really mean is you’ve changed the way they look at the world. If something of yours happens to be of help to them that’s wonderful, but it wasn’t me waving any kind of magic wand – the book is the intermediary” (Hoby).

This is the power with which her poetry and novels are infused. This writer boldly stands up for women’s rights, and yet also promotes the idea of true and genuine love. For many, the two seem at odds, but to Atwood, they coincide perfectly. Thus, she is able to write genuinely moving love poems, stemming from the heart of a woman who believes in the rights of women everywhere.

Works Cited:

  • Hoby, Hermione. “Margaret Atwood: Interview.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016

Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.

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