Although Sara Coleridge is far less known than her father, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, this piece is well worth reading. The poet uses several interesting literary devices in ‘O Sleep, My Babe’, including an apostrophe in order to craft her poem. Readers are left with several unanswered questions by the end, something that fits in with the nature of life, death, and fate.
Explore O Sleep, My Babe
The poem is directed at a young child the speaking is attempting to soothe to sleep. She does so by telling him or her not to think about the future or the dark, “untimely fate” the speaker knows is in store. She alludes to this terrible fate a few times in the poem, suggesting that the child will meet their end before she meets hers and that she’ll have to deal with that loss. The poet uses the second half of the poem to speak on how no one can know what a child’s life is going to turn out to be, one’s mind and heart lack the ability to see this future.
Coleridge engages with themes of fate and loss in ‘O Sleep, My Babe.’ Throughout the poem, the speaker alludes to a terrible fate in store for a child, and perhaps all children, but never explicitly states what that fate is. Readers are left to wonder if she’s only speaking about death at the end of life or if the child from the first and last lines of the poem is going to die sooner. Throughout, the speaker goes back and forth between alluding to knowledge about the future and claiming that it’s impossible to know someone’s fate.
Structure and Form
‘O Sleep, My Babe’ by Sara Coleridge is a seven-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but they do conform to a metrical pattern. The first two lines of each stanza are written in iambic pentameter while the third and fourth are in what is known as iambic trimeter. This means that rather than five sets of two beats per line there are three sets of two beats with the same arrangement of stresses. As with almost all poems, this one does have moments where the pattern changes.
Coleridge makes use of several literary devices in ‘O Sleep, My Babe.’ These include but are not limited to caesura, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, caesura, are pauses in the middle of lines that are created either through punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, line two of the third stanza reads: “In vain to plead, thy coming life was sold.” Or, another example, “Each year sends forth, yet every mother views.”
Alliteration is a common type of repetition that is concerned with the use and reuse of consonant sounds. For example, “rippling” and “round” in lines one and two of the first stanza and “balmy breath” in line three of the same stanza.
Enjambment is a formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the sixth stanza as well as lines one and two of the seventh stanza.
Analysis of O Sleep, My Babe
Stanzas One and Two
O sleep, my babe, hear not the rippling wave,
Nor feel the breeze that round thee ling’ring strays
To drink thy balmy breath,
And sigh one long farewell.
Soon shall it mourn above thy wat’ry bed,
And whisper to me, on the wave-beat shore,
Deep murm’ring in reproach,
Thy sad untimely fate.
In the first stanza of ‘O Sleep, My Babe,’ the speaker begins by using the phrase that came to be used as the title. She addresses her “babe,” and tells them not to listen to the “rippling wave” outside their home. Readers should note the use of internal rhyme here with “babe” and “wave.” The “babe” she’s addressing is an infant child and these lines are meant to act as a dark lullaby, soothing the child to sleep and reminding it not to think about the future when things might be darker.
Soon, she says in the next stanza, the same wind that blows through the air around the child’s face will “whisper” to the speaker and “reproach” the child’s “sad untimely fate.” These lines suggest that the speaker knows something bad is going to happen to the child before her own death. Perhaps she’s thinking the worst at this moment or is thinking more broadly about what happens to every child—death catches up eventually.
Stanzas Three and Four
Ere those dear eyes had open’d on the light,
In vain to plead, thy coming life was sold,
O waken’d but to sleep,
Whence it can wake no more!
A thousand and a thousand silken leaves
The tufted beech unfolds in early spring,
All clad in tenderest green,
All of the self-same shape:
The third stanza describes how “Ere,” or before, the child’s eyes had opened, his or her life was “sold.” This is again a suggestion of destiny, something the child can’t escape. It was solidified before the child was even born. The child woke up “but to sleep,” and to asleep from “When it can wake no more!”
The poem transitions into a series of natural images in the fourth stanza. Here, the speaker alludes to the natural process of life and death through the image of a beech tree that unfolds its leaves in spring. She relates this image to the birth of numerous identical seeming infants in the fifth stanza.
Stanzas Five and Six
A thousand infant faces, soft and sweet,
Each year sends forth, yet every mother views
Her last not least beloved
Like its dear self alone.
No musing mind hath ever yet foreshaped
The face to-morrow’s sun shall first reveal,
No heart hath e’er conceived
What love that face will bring.
The fifth stanza brings in the image of infant faces, similar to the thousands of beech leaves that are “born” each spring. Although there are so many children born every year, every nothing “views / Her last not least beloved.” Each child is beloved as if it were the first and only.
Even though the speaker has been predicting a certain fate for her “babe” she says in the next lines that no “mind hath ever yet foreshaped,” or predicted, what the “face to-morrow’s sun shall first reveal.” Just as the mind and the heart can’t imagine that’s to come or what kind of person a “babe” shall turn into.
O sleep, my babe, nor heed how mourns the gale
To part with thy soft locks and fragrant breath,
As when it deeply sighs
O’er autumn’s latest bloom.
In the final stanza, the speaker returns to the words she used in the first. She tells the child to “sleep” and not worry about the “gale” mourning as it parts the child’s hair. This is related, through a simile to how the wind “deeply sighs” at the end of autumn. This is a traditional image related to death as the bounty of the fall season dies in the cold of winter.
Readers who enjoyed ‘O Sleep, My Babe’ should also consider reading some other related poems. For example,
- ‘Fate’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson – describes the nature of fate and what the poet thinks about it. He expresses disinterest in whether someone was born with luck. It’s more important to live a good life.
- ‘The Definition of Love’ by Andrew Marvell – provides a definition of love from a dejected lover’s point of view.
- ‘Fate’ by Carolyn Wells – emphasizes the idea of true love, something that transcends time and language.