Sleep and Poetry: Synopsis and Commentary

Synopsis of Sleep and Poetry

1 - 18

The poem opens with a riddle-like series of questions (‘What is more gentle than a wind in summer?’ etc.) to which Keats gives his own answer: sleep. It is gentle, tranquil, soothing, healthful, secret, serene and enlivening.

19 - 34

Then Keats asks another set of questions, beginning with, ‘But what is higher beyond thought than thee?’ So, for all its soothing and inspiring qualities, Sleep is, in fact, subordinated to Poetry which has a unique glory. 

35 - 40

Poetry represents the mind awakened to life’s mysteries and it inspires with ambition and confidence. It reveals the profoundest truths to human beings and celebrates the very highest achievements of humankind.

41 - 84

Keats then states his own devotion to poetry and prays to her for inspiration to penetrate the mysteries of nature and what it is to be human. To be a poet for Keats means to be gifted with insight into all aspects of life, both natural and human, and to communicate that insight in language which appeals to the senses, to the imagination and to the intellect. Keats aims for a sort of ‘immortality’, the reward for a life devoted to his art.

85 - 95

However, he doubts whether fate will grant him a sufficiently long life in order to achieve his ambitions. He fears that he will die with so much unaccomplished: ‘life is but a day’, although he dismisses ‘so sad a moan’, instead rejoicing at life’s freshness, never lasting long enough to grow stale.

96 - 162

He then asks for ten years in which he can immerse himself in poetry and describes the rich range of emotions through which his deep artistic appreciation of nature will carry him, choosing each pleasure ‘that my fancy sees’. Much though he loves the sensuous pleasures of nature, however, Keats also acknowledges that a serious poetic career embodies more than poems which celebrate the pastoral landscape. There are higher ambitions to which the aspiring poet should aim. There is the epic with its weighty themes and engagement of life’s deepest mysteries.

163 - 229

There then follows Keats’ attack on the eighteenth century Augustan school of poetry whose focus on ‘musty laws’ made poetry into a craft rather than an art. The vibrant, organic beauties of nature were subjected to dry rules and artificiality. Now, however, there is a revival of true poetry. The music of poetry truly in tune with nature is once again ‘floating wild / About the earth’. It is time to be happy and glad.

230 – 269

Keats then defines the true purpose of poetry: ‘it should be a friend / To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.’ Poetry needs to deal not only with beauty and joy but with darkness and death. Only by confronting painful reality can it console humanity and celebrate all that it means to be a human being.

270 – 312

Keats answers the charge that he is presumptuous in what he has written. Should he be more cautious about attracting criticism? No. Keats believes that he has been allowed insight into ‘the end and aim of Poesy’ and so his duty is to write. Not to speak out about ‘what I have dared to think’ would be the most abject form of cowardice. He is determined to be a poet.

313 – 353

Keats then pays tribute to his friends: ‘brotherhood, / And friendliness the nurse of mutual good’ whose learning and support have been so important to him.

353 – 400

Leigh HuntSpecifically he pays tribute to all that his friendship with Leigh Hunt has meant to him and especially his frequent visits to what he describes as the ‘poet’s house who keeps the keys / Of Pleasure’s temple’, a house full of pictures and sculptures of classical subjects (which Keats describes), a large library of books to which Keats had ready access, and the friendship and support not only of Hunt but also of his wide circle of fellow artists and thinkers.

400 – 404

Keats ends his poem by saying that he leaves his verses ‘howsoever they be done’ in the same spirit of love and pride ‘as a father does his son’, to go forth into the world and to speak for themselves.

Commentary on Sleep and Poetry

Sleep and Poetry, written in December 1816, was the longest poem Keats had written so far. The idea for the poem came when he was staying at Leigh Hunt’s house. He was finding it difficult to sleep because there had been so much stimulating discussion of poetry earlier in the evening. A bed had been made up for him in the parlour study in which there were classical busts and pictures which looked down on him from the walls. 
These images included Poussin’s Empire of Flora with its foreground of Flora and her nymphs and the image of Apollo and his golden chariot above. There was also Stothart’s picture of Petrarch’s meeting with Laura. There were so many symbols of the poetry to which he had decided to dedicate his life that, far from calming his teeming brain, they served to stimulate him further. 
He did not sleep at all that night; when dawn broke Keats immediately started writing Sleep and Poetry.


As I .. disese. – Chaucer: Keats quotes from a medieval poem, The Floure and the Leaf, which at the time was believed to have been written by the ‘father of English’, Geoffrey Chaucer. The extract appropriately sets the theme of sleeplessness despite ‘hertis ese’.
1 - 18
Cordelia's countenance: Keats is thinking of the gracious youngest daughter of King Lear. Although forthright in earlier scenes of the play, Cordelia was renowned for her calm acceptance of injustice at the hands of her family and others by its end.
35 - 84
Framer of all things / Maker: Keats alludes to the Christian belief that the world and everything in it has been designed and made by God.
denizen: citizen
morning sun-beams to the great Apollo: Keats finds inspiration from the aura of the god of the sun and of poetry, Apollo.
the clear Meander: a mythical river famed for its twists and turns.
85 - 95
the monstrous steep / Of Montmorenci: Keats refers to the famous waterfall of the Montmorenci River in Quebec.
96 - 162 
Flora / Pan: Pastoral poetry frequently alluded to Flora, Roman goddess of the flowers, and Pan, god of nature.
two gems upcurl'd: The shell context indicates Keats is referring to pearls.
car:  i.e. chariot which, with its charioteer, represents the higher poetic imagination which embodies the delight, mystery and fear of l. 138 that define the grander poetic genres, such as epic. This charioteer, an image drawn from Poussin’s painting, is Apollo, god of the sun (and poetry).
163 – 229
meaning / Of Jove's large eye-brow: Keats may be thinking of the grandeur of Milton’s verse, who made many classical allusions but also wrote about God in his epic Paradise Lost (Jove was a common euphemism for God).
sway'd .. rocking horse, / .. Pegasus: Keats satirises the repetitive rocking motion of heroic couplets, used by many Augustan poets, who believed they were recreating the majesty of the winged horse of the gods, Pegasus. He is influenced by the views of his friend William Hazlitt who used Pegasus as a metaphor for Milton.
wands of Jacob's wit: Genesis 30:29-43 tells the story of how Jacob worked for his uncle Laban and as wages asked for parti-coloured sheep and goats. By placing stripped branches (wands) in front of them, he encouraged the parti-coloured animals to breed more successfully.
bright Lyrist: another reference to Apollo, as god of poetry
one Boileau!: Keats is critical of the influence of the French poet, Boileau, whose ideas shaped the development of neo-classical/Augustan poetry.
230 – 269 
Polyphemus: the Cyclops who imprisoned Odysseus and his men in his cave and devoured two of them at each meal. Odysseus blinded him and escaped with his remaining men tied beneath the bellies of Polyphemus’ sheep.
Myrtle: one of the three foliages which traditionally constituted the crown awarded to a great poet (the others being ivy and bay). Keats uses it to refer to the coming age of poetry in which the art will be restored to its former greatness, following the Augustan ‘foppery’.
Paphos: the centre of worship of the goddess of love, Aphrodite
Yeaned in after times: given birth to in the future.
270 - 312
fane: poetic term for a temple
Dedalian wings:  Keats would have read about Dedalus in the copy of Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary kept in his school library:
He was the most ingenious artist of his age, who escaped from King Minos’ anger by making ‘wings with feathers and wax, and carefully fitting them to his body, and that of his son … They took their flight in the air from Crete; but the sun melted the wax on the wings of Icarus, whose flight was too high, and he fell into that part of the ocean, which from him has been called the Icarian sea.     
313 – 352
Bound / Of Bacchus .. blushingly: Bacchus took advantage of Ariadne after she had been abandoned by Theseus. Keats admired Titian’s painting of this event.
opening a portfolio: Keats had free access to Leigh Hunt’s library and would have found in it portfolios (large format books) of engravings of paintings. With much less public access to art collections available in the early nineteenth century, portfolios were an important alternative source of images. 
353 - 404
poet’s house: Keats is referring to Leigh Hunt’s cottage. The images on the walls of the parlour study, where Keats spent his restless night, are described in lines 354-91.
Diana's timorous limbs: the Roman goddess of hunting, famously wary of men
Sappho’s meek head: a bust of the female Greek poet, Sappho
Great Alfred’s: English King Alfred the Great was a hero to liberal minded Romantics.
Kosciusko .. suffrance: Hunt had a bust of Tadeusz Kosciusko, a Polish soldier who resisted Russian attack.
Petrarch .. Laura: The medieval Italian poet Petrarch dedicated his verse to his beloved, Laura; Hunt had a picture of the lovers.

Investigating commentary on Sleep and Poetry

  • What does the commentary suggest about the extent of Keats’ immersion in the arts?
  • In what ways are the visual arts an important source of inspiration for this poem?
  • What does the commentary suggest about the relationship between the ‘real world’ and that of the creative imagination?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.