In a conversation with John Graham (Conversations with Richard Wilbur, 1990), Wilbur states that this poem speaks about someone giving advice to someone else about how to get to sleep. The first line, “As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,” provides an image for the confidence with which a person should enter the land of dreams. Although such an idea may have provided the impetus for the birth of the poem, its singularity gives rise to the idea that the poem is uncharacteristic for Wilbur, as suggested by its length. The poem reads as if the poet would make his readers understand, once and for all, his writing process as well as its effect on him. The use of vivid, almost surreal imagery mimics the fragmentation that the personality undergoes as it yields control of the journey to the process of journeying itself. Thus, while the poet’s interpretation sheds light on the poem, there are other ways of reading it.
Another possible way of understanding the poem “Walking to Sleep” is understanding “sleep” as a metaphor for death and the journey as the process of dying. Certainly the fact that the poem is the final one in the volume’s section of original poems suggests that possibility, as if the author were telling his readers that death is the end of the journey for everyone. Such an interpretation would suggest that the interplay between the imagination and the real world culminates in the release of control, which the speaker calls for, leading to the acceptance of the inevitability of death. Indeed, such undertones exist in the poem, but another interpretation arises as well.
The poem also seems to speak of the poet’s own struggle with the sources of the creative process itself. When the poet, in creating a poem, steps off into the “blank” of his mind, anything can happen. No one can maintain a blank mind for very long; consequently, the poem begins a catalog of dreamlike images that occur to the poet. Just as a queen risks falling when she “sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,” the “Potemkin barns” in eighteenth century Russia existed in a village of facades erected to deceive Empress Catherine II. Such images may emerge from dreams, hallucinations, or other subconscious sources.
The poet allows that such sources are most fruitful when there is little attempt to control them. If there is too much control, “what you project/ Is what you will perceive; what you perceive/ With any passion, be it love or terror,/ May take on whims and powers of its own.” The poet, then, must allow the process to take him where it will.
The poem continues to intersperse guidelines and vivid imagery as if to suggest a cause and effect relationship. Sometimes the warnings take on the tone of a governmental official: “Should that occur, adjust to circumstances/ And carry on, taking these few precautions.” The reader learns that there is nothing that can be done to foresee with any accuracy what will happen as the mind journeys. Whether the reader seeks shelter in the Great Pyramid that Cheops erected or in an iron shed in a military barracks, both are temporary and subject to invasion, whether by grave robbers or enemy soldiers.
The poet suggests that even pleasant images can distract the reader from the journey. Thus the poem counsels the reader to avoid beautiful rooms with beautiful women in them and to continue doggedly in pursuit of “The kind assassin Sleep.” At this point, the poem twists as the speaker asks “What, are you still awake?/ Then you must risk another tack and footing./ Forget what I have said.” Instead of using the imagination as the vehicle for travel, the poem suggests that the reader look closely at the ordinary things in ordinary life. At this point, the poem celebrates nature as revelatory of whatever truth the reader seeks.
The final image, that of Vishnu sleeping by a pool, alludes to the story told about Vishnu, the Preserver, the chief god worshiped by the Vaishnava as the second member of the trinity in Hinduism, which includes Brahma, the Creator, and Shiva, the Destroyer. As Vishnu slept, wrapped in “maya,” the illusions of the flesh, the images that crossed his face contained all of history—past, present, and to come. Yet he received these “as they came,” with no particular importance attached to or difference made among them. Wilbur suggests that the poet should imitate such receptivity.
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