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How sleep is imagined in literature

‘To sleep, perchance to dream’

Sleep might be a universal necessity. But that doesn’t make it uniform. Each person’s night’s sleep is utterly nuanced. No small wonder, then, that it’s been a fascination in literature for centuries.

Dreams especially have proved a fertile landscape for authors’ imaginations. They’re an aspect of sleep that’s often emotional, turbulent and surreal. Despite being projected by the inner workings of our mind, they can pose more questions than they answer.

Unsurprisingly, we find sleep endlessly captivating. After decades in the industry, we know just how unique it can be for each person. One thing remains the same: we all know how incredibly restorative getting a good (or even luxurious) night’s rest can be. 

Intimate and relatable, learning about sleep is something we won’t tire of in a hurry.

"There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep."

Homer, The Odyssey.

Dr Seuss, unknown.

“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” 

This quote often attributed to Seuss might have a slightly romantic view of insomnia. But it’s not without logic. A Swedish study even found adolescents who believed they were in love reported at least an hour’s less sleep than those unattached. It’s thought that the hormonal rush of oxytocin, dopamine and others make it hard to wind down.

Shakespeare, Hamlet.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question…

…To die: to sleep; 

No more; and, by a sleep to say we end 

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks 

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation 

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; 

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.”

 

Whilst some of us might enjoy reliving happy memories when we sleep, Shakespeare painted a Hamlet haunted by his past actions even during this restful inactivity. He seeks something more than sleep; a dreamless death, to free him from his conscience. Yet in this oft-quoted soliloquy, you sense his uncertainty about death and whether it’s enough of a permanent state to free him from his troubles. Or like sleep, will he dream in death and never be free from his earthly troubles. To be or not to be then, is to live or die.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

“Moments before sleep are when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils. The day seems to have no order until these times, which are like a ledger for her, her body full of stories and situations.” 

 

In this book about lovers from two different cultures, the author portrays its characters as texts being adapted and revised with new experiences. It’s just before sleep that Hana processes her learnings from the day. This beautiful analogy of the thought process in the moments between sleeping and waking will wonderfully familiar for many of us.

Lewis Carroll, Alice through the Looking Glass.

“A dream is not reality, but who’s to say which is which?”

 

Alice in Wonderland was born out of the harsh, normative Victorian era. It was a time when dream states were closely linked to insanity. Yet Lewis Carroll suggested dreams were a far more positive experience. Alice eventually wakes up from her dreams of Wonderland. Yet Carroll suggests with a ‘child-like’ exploratory imagination, freedom of the mind actually opened up endless possibilities in real life as well.

John Keats, Sleep and Poetry

“WHAT is more gentle than a wind in summer?

What is more soothing than the pretty hummer

That stays one moment in an open flower,

And buzzes cheerily from bower to bower?

What is more tranquil than a musk-rose blowing

In a green island, far from all men’s knowing...

...More full of visions than a high romance?

What, but thee Sleep? Soft closer of our eyes!

Low murmurer of tender lullabies!

Light hoverer around our happy pillows!

Wreather of poppy buds, and weeping willows!

Silent entangler of a beauty’s tresses!

Most happy listener! when the morning blesses

Thee for enlivening all the cheerful eyes

That glance so brightly at the new sun-rise.”

 

Keats celebrates the rejuvenating, soothing benefits of sleep. Yet for all the benefits sleep might have, in the next stanza he suggests poetry is superior. Inspired by a stimulating night discussing poetry in 1816, Keats found he couldn’t sleep all night. In the morning, he penned his longest poem to date.

Homer, The Odyssey.

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” 

 

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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