Last Reviewed on December 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628
Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Sleep” begins with a question echoing that asked of a couple immediately before they exchange marriage vows: “do you give yourselves to one another?” Here, however, the question is one-sided: “Do you give yourself to me utterly . . . ?” Sleep, personified, addresses the reader as a mother talking to an infant. The mother has total control, but promises to care for the child completely.
The soft sounds of the first stanza, “flesh and no-flesh” half-rhymed with “wish,” imitate the soothing noises a mother might make when quieting her baby, lulling the reader to sleep even while asking the question. Alliteration and assonance feature throughout the poem, which is increasingly soft and murmuring until the end of the third stanza. (There, the poem becomes strident and insistent as the final stanza describes awakening.) The firm “b” and “i” sounds and fast-moving dactyls in the poem’s third line, “Not as a fugitive, blindly or bitterly,” seem like the last, futile resistance of the waking world to the soporific sounds that surround it.
In the second stanza, the scheme of half-rhymes softens as it applies to words with unstressed endings and the “receive you . . . engulf you . . . love you” of lines three through five. The meter also changes, leaving behind the dactylic rhythm of the first stanza for something less regular but at the same time smoother and more mellifluous. The assonance in a phrase such as “Carry you and ferry you to burial” renders end-rhymes superfluous.
The imagery in the second stanza creates the idea that sleep—like the land of the dead in Greek mythology—is another place across a river or a sea. The word “burial” intensifies the connection with death, but the image of “the huge cave, my belly” returns the focus to motherhood. It suggests that the sleeper is in the womb awaiting birth rather than in the earth after death. The repetitive phrases and polysyndeton are not only soporific, but also carry the reassuring connotation of religious ritual, picking up the echo of the marriage service in the first stanza.
Take you and receive you,
Consume you, engulf you . . .
The assonance and alliteration increase in the third stanza, to the point where the reader is reminded of Middle English alliterative verse such as Piers Plowman. The effect seems to aid the suspension of time in the “dumb chamber” of sleep. Slessor has abandoned end-rhymes entirely at this point, using assonance to link lines’ final words: “there . . . chamber” and “move . . . you.” The internal half rhymes, however, are striking (“clamber . . . slumber . . . chamber”) as is the use of alliteration. The third line, “Beat with my blood’s beat, hear my heart move,” mimics the sound of a heartbeat closely enough to be considered onomatopoetic. The final line of the stanza, “Delve in my flesh, dissolved and bedded,” suggests that the sleeper is retreating further into the womb, as one does, in fact, fall asleep gradually and sleep particularly deeply immediately before waking.
The half-rhymes resume as the sleeper wakes. So too do the harsh “i” sounds of the first stanza, even more insistent and grating now in the phrase “riving and driving.” This is not a gentle awakening or even an ordinary birth; it is a “harsh birth,” characterized by wrenching forceps, pangs and a sense of betrayal, a rude expulsion from the sensuous luxury of sleep. The fourth stanza, like the second, describes movement, but there is a stark contrast between the tranquil passivity of the sleeper—borne, carried, ferried, taken, received, consumed and engulfed by “huge waves” in the womb of sleep—and the language of expulsion and “driving forth” which describes awakening in the final stanza. Although the poem is about sleep, it is also an implicit indictment of the pains of consciousness.
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