The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

Like many other poems by Delmore Schwartz, this—the author’s most frequently anthologized piece—takes its title from its first line, which provides the work with an intriguing and memorable opening. This is matched by an equally powerful, if dispiriting, concluding statement. The poem is thus securely framed.

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Structurally, the poem is made up of two compact blocks of text, each about fourteen lines long. Hence, one might regard it as a rhymeless double sonnet. It would be perhaps more accurate to say that each half of the poem behaves like a double octave and like a double sestet, as considerable tension and interaction is going on between the two parts.

Indeed, the first half can be seen to break further into two verse paragraphs in the middle of line eight. In this way, the author points out a slight departure from the main thrust of the preceding seven and a half lines. Similarly, in the poem’s very last line, a break occurs that marks off the concluding statement or capstone of the work. A more decisive turning point is indicated by the continuous break separating the two halves of the piece.

Although the poem is written in the first person, the speaker keeps himself in the background as much as possible. The poem’s chief concern is not so much to give an account of a unique personal experience as to focus on what binds humanity together. Thus the “I” in the first half of the poem is referred to as “son of man” in the latter. In spite of this generalizing impulse, however, the author is at pains to fill in with a wealth of particulars the state he is trying to define, evoke, and describe: that is, insomnia or sleeplessness by night, followed by the drowsiness attending pulling himself together in the waking hours of morning.

The title of the poem provides a good entry into the poem. Its first half, “In the Naked Bed,” conveys the feeling of an insomniac’s futile tossing. This is suggested by the rather unexpected and seemingly superfluous attribute “naked.” The other phrase, “in Plato’s Cave,” reminds the reader of the famous myth of human consciousness depicted by Plato in the Republic (388-368 b.c.e.). In its early stages of becoming, humanity but dimly realizes its condition. Perceptions are like shadows projected onto the wall of a cave. Only later, according to the ancient Greek philosopher, is humanity capable of escaping its delusions and getting out of the cave to confront reality as it really is, in broad daylight, by dint of the tools of abstract reasoning. Schwartz seems to require one to regard his poem as dealing alternately with the delusional and obsessional aspects of both insomnia and waking. The twin phrases making up the title are thus complementary and, up to a point, synonymous. The two stages—sleeplessness and drowsiness—are consecutive and therefore separable, each being dealt with analytically and at length. One cannot, however, draw the dividing line so neatly, for as early as the middle of the first part, the figure of the milkman might be taken to herald the break of day, providing a transitional moment in the poem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

The poem is characterized by a sustained unidirectional movement with a break between its two parts that stands for a brief interlude of sleep. The continuous string of verbs—all in the past tense—ensures the even pace of the unfolding narrative. Many realistic details are touched upon in passing, each contributing to the density of the text. The accumulation of tangible facts provides the poem’s momentum and its self-transcending transformation toward the end: the conversion of past into present, and the abandonment of the sequential development. Instead, the speaker points now to a pattern of recurrences and cyclicity that define human history.

Both parts are replete with visual and auditory images. Alone in his room, the insomniac is aware of the amplified noises of the street below, as well as of the flitting shadows chasing themselves along the ceiling and down the wall until the milkman’s sound makes him aware of the impending dawn. Drawn to the window, the speaker is struck by the eerie emptiness of the cityscape whose atmosphere seems to descend from the early metaphysical paintings of Giorgio di Chirico.

This effect is further matched and enhanced in the second part by such compelling metaphors as the waterfalls of hooves and the coughing of a car’s engine. Further, the image of the half-awakened bird tentatively testing the reality of the dawn by means of its song recalls poetic moments in Alfred, Lord Tennyson (“Tears, Idle Tears”) and Wallace Stevens (“Sunday Morning”). Finally, the sensation of one’s self as being “still wet with sleep” creates a singular graphic moment in which the reader is, so to speak, invited to recognize the poetic as the chief constitutive feature of the work in hand. By contrast, the concluding sentence restricts the figurative tendency of the language to a minimum. “So, so”—the very first words of this section—show the reluctance of the speaker to indulge in the figurative game again. The time has come to conclude. Such epithets as “ignorant” qualifying “night” and “the travail of early morning” aptly sum up and contrast the oppositions developed in the poem. Then, in a totalizing gesture, they are blended into a formula of recurrence, “the mystery of beginning/ Again and again,” which is an attempt to define historical time as a sequence of half-realized moments.

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