To Sleep: Synopsis and Commentary

Synopsis of To Sleep

The poem’s speaker apostrophises a personified Sleep, describing it as the soft and benign provider of ‘forgetfulness’ for the troubled human spirit. The speaker calls on Sleep to end his wakefulness, otherwise he will be disturbed by thoughts of the day that has passed and his own examination of his conscience, which throw up unhelpful memories like a molehill. Instead, the speaker asks Sleep to lock up the ‘casket of my soul’.

Sleep by Frances MacDonald 1910Commentary on To Sleep

In a letter (dated May 1819) to his brother George and his wife, Keats commented: 
I have been endeavouring to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have. The legitimate [Petrarchan sonnet] does not suit the language over-well from the pouncing rhymes – the other kind [the Shakespearean] appears too elegiac – and the couplet at the end of it seldom has a pleasing effect – I do not pretend to have succeeded – it will explain itself…     
We can see Keats experimenting with form in this sonnet.


embalmer: To embalm means to preserve a corpse from decay, originally with spices and subsequently by injecting a preservative into the corpse’s arteries. Here the word means more generally someone who prepares a body for a funeral (including shutting its eyes).
embowered: surrounded or sheltered, especially with trees or climbing plants
soothest: Invented by Keats, this term means ‘most soothing’ but its sound also helps to convey a sense of ‘smoothness’.
poppy: The medically trained Keats would be familiar with opiates produced by the opium poppy which were used to reduce pain or induce sleep.
wards: the ridges or bars in a lock
casket: a small ornamental box or chest for holding jewels or other valued objects.

Investigating commentary on To Sleep

  • What particular benefits does the speaker attribute to Sleep?
    • What does this suggest about the speaker’s state of mind?
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