‘The Pains of Sleep’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a three stanza poem which is divided into one set of 13 lines and two sets of 20 lines. This analysis has been broken down further to help with a cohesive and clear understanding of the text.
The poem does not follow a consistent rhyme scheme but instead changes as the poem progresses. The first six lines stick to the pattern of aabbccdd, while those that follow (with different rhyming words) rhyme ababbcc. The next section, which begins in the second stanza, rhymes, ababccc. The poem continues in this vein, switching from one contained rhyming pattern to the next.
Summary of The Pains of Sleep
‘The Pains of Sleep’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes a period in a speaker’s life in which he is besieged by terrible imagery.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he has been laying in his bed for an extended period of time, unable to move. He does the only type of prayer he knows how, and turns his soul over in “reverential resignation” to “Love.” This action should cleanse his restlessness and purify the thoughts he’s been having.
As the poem continues on the speaker describes what the last two nights of his life have been like. He has seen a variety of terrible images that wake him screaming from sleep. All of these sights represent the horrors that mankind is capable of, and by default, the speaker himself.
By the end of the piece he is asking, almost desperately, why it is that he is the one who has to bear the responsibility of these images.
Analysis of The Pains of Sleep
Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation
The poem begins with the speaker describing the fact that he has collapsed on his bed. He seems unable to move his “limbs” or complete any type of physical action which would improve his situation. At this point in the poem it is unclear what exactly is wrong with the speaker and why he feels so helpless.
While in this vulnerable state, he thinks about the fact that throughout his life it has not been his custom to pray as others do. He is not someone who “bend[s]” his knee and gets on the floor to plead with God for help in troubling situations. The speaker has another way of praying and in this moment he turns to it.
He mentally prepares himself for the prayer and tries to fill his “spirit” with “Love.” Love has been capitalized in this instance to represent the power that this force has over the world as well as its connection to God. He is devoting his whole being in “reverential resignation” to “Love.”
He closes his eyes in “trust,” fully believing that his mental or physical problems will be lifted or remedied by this supplication.
No wish conceived,
no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
A sense o’er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, every where
Eternal strength and Wisdom are.
The speaker is attempting to completely clear his mind while focusing on “Love.” He is not expressing anything aside from this in his mind. There is only the “sense of supplication.”
The speaker knows, at least in this moment of purposeful exposure, that his life and soul are “weak” in comparison to the power of the world’s forces. He mentions two of these, and how they keep him from being “unblest,” or “unblessed,” in the last line of this stanza. He can feel “Eternal strength and Wisdom” all around him. They keep his life on track and help remind him of the value of living.
But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!
In the second stanza the speaker continues his narrative by stating that although he is now filled with “reverential resignation,” the night before, he “prayed aloud / In anguish and in agony.” He remembers how he prayed with the intent of “Up-starting” or escaping, from the thoughts that haunted him. These take the shape of a “fiendish crowd / Of shapes and thoughts” that followed him around “tortur[ing]” him.
The following lines, which expand from this section to the rest of the second stanza, speak of those “shapes and thoughts” which haunt the speaker. He attempts to give them form and make them understandable to a reader who is unsure about what he is experiencing.
He begins by stating that he can see a “lurid,” or brilliant, light and a “trampling” group. This could refer to an out of control “throng” of people, or of images and emotions. He can “Sense” that the place he is in is full of “intolerable wrong.” His whole world feels off balance and sinful.
Lines 21- 26
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!
And shame and terror over all!
The images that make up this speaker’s mental nightmare continue in this section with his description of feeling a “Thirst of revenge” and a powerlessness that leaves him “baffled.” He is unable to comprehend the emotions he is experiencing but he remains completely at their mercy.
He is able to feel both “Desire” and “loathing” at the same time. These emotions attach themselves to various objects and bring on “Fantastic passions.” He is not in control of his own body or mind. He feels combinations of every possible negative emotion.
Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know
Whether I suffered, or I did:
For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.
In the last lines of this section the poet concludes his description of what it is like to live inside his body over the previous two nights by stating he “suffered” the confusion of deeds. He feels as if he did something wrong and that everyone is going know about it. This is coupled with “guilt, remorse or woe.” Whether these emotions belong to him or to “others” it does not matter. He still feels the same “Life-stifling fear” and “soul-stifling shame.”
So two nights passed: the night’s dismay
Saddened and stunned the coming day.
Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me
Distemper’s worst calamity.
The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream,
O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child;
In the final stanza the speaker begins to clear up some of the confusion which might have come into one’s reading in the previous stanza. He makes clear that everything he just spoke of was experienced over the “two nights” previous. He also says that he was unable to get any reprieve from these emotions as they continued into day and soured the hours of light.
Additionally, he makes sure the reader knows that he was unable to escape through sleep, as it was here that everything was at it’s worst. He would experience “Distemper’s worst calamity.”
The narrative has now progressed to the third night of his torture. He wakes himself up by screaming. The speaker has emerged from a “fiendish dream” and in reaction to it, “wept” like a child.
And having thus by tears subdued
My anguish to a milder mood,
Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin,—
For aye entempesting anew
The unfathomable hell within,
The horror of their deeds to view,
To know and loathe, yet wish and do!
His tears have poured from him and improved his mood slightly. It is now “milder.” He is able to speak on the nature of his torturous nights with a clear head. The speaker states that these things have come to him because he is viewing the deepest sins present in nature. The “unfathomable hell” that lies within certain people is being pressed down on him.
He is being made to “know and loathe” the acts of humankind and there is nothing he can do about it. The narrator is only able to wish that he could help in some way.
Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?
To be loved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.
In the final lines he questions why it is that these “griefs” have fallen on him. Why should he, the narrator states, be the one to know them? I seems especially unfair because all he needs is love and someone “whom” he can “love indeed.”
These visions were to the speaker a reminder of what is present in the world. They serve as a contrast between the purity of an emotion like love, and the reality of what humankind can do.