What is "Sleep and Poetry" by John Keats about?

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“Sleep and Poetry” is a veiled criticism of neoclassical poetry—the “foppery and barbarism” of the eighteenth century. Both Pegasus and Apollo, as described within the poem, are muses of poetry. The neoclassicists, although they believe themselves to be real poets, are not pleasing the muses. Although they believe they are pleasing Apollo and writing poetry which, so to speak, rides on the wings of Pegasus, they are merely on a “rocking horse”: “[they] sway’d about upon a rocking horse / And thought it Pegasus.”

It is important to understand why Keats criticized neoclassical poetry, which is central to understanding the beautiful, sensuous imagery of the poem. Keats, as one of the founding fathers of the Romantic movement in English poetry, thought that art should be centered above all on imagination, sensation, and beauty. We know this already from the famous last line of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Truth is beauty, beauty is truth,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Neoclassical poetry, centered around form (based on Greek and Roman poetic structures), the intellect, and educating its readers, is opposed to Keats’s Romantic notions of poetry. The entire poem is animated by this clash in ideology. Classical poets’ writings have themes which are “ugly clubs . . . / Disturbing the sea.” By contrast, the first few stanzas (as well as the last) are meant to show us what Romantic poetry can do, urging the reader to consider the rejuvenating beauty of nature and sleep.

For more on the definition of neoclassical poetry, see the link below.

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In this long poem, having had a sleepless night, Keats first compares sleep and poetry as realms of the imagination: as with dreams, we often wonder where the images and ideas of poetry come from. He then moves from sleep and muses on poetry as a vocation, in particular, as his vocation. He describes the joy of his imaginative ventures into the poetic and hopes for immortality through his verse. At this point, he was staying with his friend Leigh Hunt at his cottage, hoping for ten more years of life to compose his poems. 

Much of the poem is a defense of writing poetry for the benefits it provides, such as,

that it should be a friend
To sooth the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.

Keats worries, however, that after the "foppery" and "barbarism" of the Neoclassical poetry of the eighteenth century, it may be impossible to get back to writing the kind of great poetry he identifies with earlier ages. He has a moment of despair; he then regains hope and resolves to keep writing, ending with,

And up I rose refresh'd, and glad, and gay,
Resolving to begin that very day
These lines; and howsoever they be done,
I leave them as a father does his son.

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Keats' poem "Sleep and Poetry" is an extended metaphor comparing sleep to poetry (and no, he didn't mean it puts you to sleep, although some of Keats' less well ordered poems might do that anyway ...). The poem starts out with an inspired description of the goodness and desirability of lovely sleep that whispers and softly closes eyes. He leads into this praise of sleep with a quotation from Chaucer in which chaucer complains that he can't sleep. Hence, Keats' lyrical musings on the pleasures of sleep--which eludes him all night as well since he is struck with poetic inspiration.

In language that is replete with classical allusions from Cordelia to Pan to Jove to Diana to the Great Alfred, Keats' sings the praise of "Posey" (poetry) as the one thing in all the world that can rival the qualities of sleep. Keats lies awake all night contemplating the comparison between sleep and posey and rushes to commit all his words and thoughts, sprung inspired during his sleepless night, to paper to immortalize the one thing that can possibly rival the luxurious transcendent quality of sleep, that being luxurious transcendent posey.

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