Sleep is supposed to be

Sleeping Woman, 19th century, Carl Holsøe
Background Image: Sleeping Woman, 19th century, Carl Holsøe

Not all of Emily’s poems have to be serious meditations on death, the afterlife, and the soul, they can also be how annoyed the poet is that their father raps on their door at 3am, long before the sun has come up, and seriously disturbs her sleeping. I love her sense of humor here, especially since this is addressed to her friend Susan whom she is sort of venting to.

But there is good poetry here, too.

The first stanza is a declaration of what Emily believes the purpose of sleeping is, and you can feel her slight annoyance with having to even bother to explain this to anyone – her father in this case. Though Emily was 28 when she wrote this, you can still sense the willful, almost teenage attitude here as she explains to her father how things ought to be.

The second stanza drops the attitude and she paints a rather beautiful image of the “hosts” (I assume she is describing the angels who watch over us) down on their hands (and knees) as they keep an eye on us while we sleep. This is a rather lovely image of being watched over when we are vulnerable, but it also carries the tiniest hint of a barb back at her father by implying that his job is to protect her while she sleeps, not wake her up at all hours of the night before the sun has come up.

The third stanza is similar to the first in that it’s a clear declaration of what the morning “Morn” is supposed to be. Again, you can almost image Emily standing before her father and explain in that way only a young woman who is annoyed can do about what things mean and how someone ought to be behaving.

The line “Morning has not occurred!” – here in my edition printed as an individual line separate from the other stanzas – could almost be the empathetic plea to her father to stop waking her up before the sun has risen. This very well could be a direct quote from her confrontation with her father.

The final stanza, as with the second, is another beautiful image which is full of color and light. She uses the word “Aurora” to describe the dawn, and she paints the sky with the “red” clouds in the morning sky (or perhaps this is a wordplay of “array” as in the red rays – ray / array / a ray of the sun). She even describes the morning breeze as the “banner gay” which gives the poem a sense of movement and vitality in the morning when the sun is rising and giving light to the world.

But she makes her point with the final line, much in the way a person stamping their foot on the ground when they try to explain something to someone who is exacerbating them with her use of italics on the word “That” and carries her annoyance further with the word “break” to describe not only the breaking of the dawn, but also the breaking of her peace and quiet of sleep, and the breaking of her patience with her father.

This is wonderful poem, full of Emily’s personality and a glimpse into the daily life of her household. I wonder what Susan must have thought when she read this?