At 143 lines, “Walking to Sleep,” the longest of Richard Wilbur’s poems, is the title poem of Walking to Sleep, 1969, in which it was first collected. As the third part of that book, it concludes the section of original poems, with a number of translations following. In an interview with William Heyen (Conversations with Richard Wilbur, 1990), Wilbur confesses that the book represents eight years of work. Because poets give a great deal of thought to the placement and arrangement of poems, the placement of this poem implies that its ideas embody a sense of finality which transcends mere bodily sleep. The poem is written in the first person, and the speaker is barely distinguishable from Wilbur himself. The speaker assumes an air of authority and seasoned wit as he addresses the reader.
“Walking to Sleep” opens on a note of grave confidence which the speaker establishes and continues throughout the poem. Suggesting that the reader step off into the “blank of your mind,” he assures the reader that such confidence is absolutely necessary for the journey—which will be both imaginary and real. The journey begins in the realm of the imagination as shaped by the real. The speaker warns the reader, however, that frustrations occur, especially if the reader attempts to control the direction and outcome of the journey. What follows is an interplay of images and specific directions.
As if the speaker becomes aware that he may be frightening the reader, and finding the reader still awake, he suggests that the reader forget all that the speaker has said and begin again. The poem itself seems to begin again at this point; this time the reader starts in the real world, allowing the imagination freedom to shape experience. Finally, Wilbur ends the poem by averring that the most fruitful journeys are those which remain open to the real and the imaginative experience, with no attempt at control.