The Pains of Sleep: by S. T. Coleridge - Summary & Analysis

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      Though written as early as 1803, The Pains of Sleep has been published only in 1816 along with Christabel. Brilliance of intellect is sometimes denies robust health. Coleridge had never been as healthy as he deserves to be. Rheumatism, spasmodic attacks of dysentery, etc. has plagued him always. He becomes an addict to laudanum, a tincture of opium, in order to relieve himself from pain. The habit cannot leave him. He has taken the stuff in increasing quantities which results in further deterioration in his health. He uses to spend sleepless nights and if at all he has some sleep now and then it is vitiated by horrid dreams. This miserable plight is due to the strong doses of opium that he has indulged himself in but he is helpless. Coleridge is very unhappy over his ill-health. He wrote to a friend; "God forbid that my worst enemy shall ever have the nights and sleeps that I have had night after night surprised by sleep, while I struggle to remain awake, starting up to bless my own loud screams that has awaken me-yea, dear friend, till my repeated night-yells has made me a nuisance in my own house."


      L. 1-13. In the beginning we are given a sort of background to the poem. While going to bed it is the practice among devout Christians of those days to kneel down and pray to God in more or less audible words. But Coleridge says that he do not do so habitually. His practice was to pray silently with his eyes closes. He do not openly pray for any fulfillment of his wishes. There used to be a sense of supplication with reverential submission to the Almighty whose strength and wisdom he can perceive everywhere around him. He is fully conscious of his weakness but at the same time he is convinced that God will not keep him unblessed.

      L. 14-32. The poet goes on to give us a vivid picture of the sufferings he has to undergo on a particular night. He has painful hallucinations of a crowd of shapes and thoughts torturing him. He has a sense of intolerable wrong and unbearable injustice. Persons meriting his scornful contempt are seen in dreams as too powerful for him to contend with. In spite of his eagerness to punish them, he is baffled and powerless to do anything. Loathing for certain things become strangely mixed with keen desire for them. He is overwhelmed by fantastic passions and maddening brawl. He is unable to decide whether he perpetrates certain blameworthy actions or suffers on account of the same when performed by others. Guilt, remorse and woe instilled fear and shame in him. After these dreams and horrible experiences, the poet got up and prayed to God aloud.

      L. 33-52. The last section of this lyrical piece is devoted to the recurrence of the horrid dreams for two nights and its effect on him. The day following the fearful dreams also is sorrowful. Sleep is a blessing experienced by people all over the world but unfortunately, the poet who has a bodily disorder found it calamitous. After experiencing the horrible dreams on the third night the poet is so overwhelmed that he begin to cry like a child. He is somewhat relieved after the anguished cry. Then the poet with excessive self-pity wonders why he should be tormented with such griefs and worries when he had been sinless and devoid of criminal tendencies. The poet concludes the piece with the avowal of his serious aim in life.


Development of Thought

      In this personal and autobiographical poem, The Pains of Sleep, Coleridge confides in the reader about the misery he experiences on certain nights. The poem begins with the poet expressing his feeling of faith in God, even though he do not follow the ostentatious practice of kneeling and praying aloud at bed-time. His practice is to pray silently. Then the poet goes on to describe what he underwent on a particular night so as to be forced to pray about. He see a crowd of horrible shapes in his sleep and is tortured by terrible thoughts. He feel overpowered by hostile people, and also experiences a dreadful desire for hateful things. All this is accompanied by a feeling of guilt and remorse. Walking up in a state of misery, he prays aloud to God. In the last section of the poem, the poet tells us of the effect of such dreams. He feel depressed throughout the day after such miserable nights. Sleep, which is a universal blessing for mankind, has become a calamity for the poet. When on the third night of such horrid dreams, he awake with loud screams, and overwhelms by suffering he weep like a child, he reflects that he did not deserve such hideous punishment. All that he askes is to be loved by those whom he loved sincerely.

Critical Appreciation

      This autobiographical poem emphasises on personal experience. True to the characteristic style of a romantic poet this work gives a lot of illuminating glimpses of Coleridge's temperament and personal idiosyncrasies.

      The distress and sorrow that dominates the mood of the author when he sensed these few lines can be clearly understood from the series of grief stricken words uses in the poem such as "agony", "anguish", "woe" "torture" "dismay", "calamity", "horror" "scream", "lurid light" "baffled", "maddening" etc. The hallucinations of the poet are clearly portrayed. His experience of fantastic passions and maddening dreams, the strange confusion of the mingling of desire with loathing, the feeling of guilt, remorse and woe-all these indicate the sick mind of the poet. We are able to understand that all these psychological upheavals are the result of excessive addiction to the opiate drug.

      The agonising experiences of the poet are the experiences of many other people also who unfortunately fall a prey to the habit of the use of laudanum. The poet begin the odious habit to get some relief from rheumatic pain but ultimately landed himself in more trouble. The remedy happened to be more disastrous than the original malady. The poet's outbursts of self-pity and the protests that he has been guileless and free from sin may awaken the feelings of compassion in our hearts. Those who are habitually prone to deadliest of sins and offences against God and His creations may well deserve such punishments but simple folk desirous of loving and being loved by others should be spared. Moreover, the poet is a believer in God and his mercy and this religious devotion in him also merits kindness from the Almighty. The last section of the poem can be called a specimen of the poet's vigour of expression.

      As a literary piece the poem merits our praise. The feelings of terror and shame and guilt are effectively conveyed through intensity of language.


      L. 14-32. But yester night.....stifling shame. Unlike his usual practice of praying silently the poet has to pray aloud on a certain night because of the horrifying experience of terrible dreams. He gets up in a state of excessive agony and remorse and prays to God aloud. The diabolical shapes and fantastic images so terrifies the poet that he finds relief only in the supplication for mercy. The vision of intolerable injustice and the prevalence of the power of strong but detestable persons is too much for him. He wants to take revenge on them but finds himself powerless. Many things come before him for which he has a keen desire and an excessive distaste simultaneously. Everything is confusing and contradictory. He has feelings of fear as well as shame. The lines are a vivid expression of the experience of drug taking.

      L. 35-52. Sleep the wide indeed. Sleep is universally acknowledged as something necessary for us to recoup our energy and give relief to our mental tensions. But the author says that he finds it to be a curse because he has some bodily disorder. He never wants to go to sleep because he is terribly afraid of the horrid dreams and hallucinations. There is some meaning, if sinful persons are punished by God or man and society, but the poet feels that a sinless and guileless man like him should not have been tormented by these life-stifling fears and soul-stifling, shames. If guilty persons are punished they will realise their mistakes. Punishment to them will be a deterrent and hence necessary. On the contrary if an innocent person is punished he may become callous and is likely to commit some crime just to spite those people who tortured him. So, it is necessary that society should mete out punishment to those who deserve it. Further, the poet wants to love others and be loved by them. All the more reason that he should be pitied and not punished. The lines show a strain of self-pity in the poet. However, the pathetic lines evoke our sympathy for the poet.

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