To Sleep: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in To Sleep

Not surprisingly, in a poem entitled To Sleep, the tone is hushed and gentle. Sleep is entreated with the utmost courtesy and respect to perform its life-giving function. The poem is a hymn, as if sleep were a divinity who must be honoured. The respectful tone is conveyed by the phrase ‘if so it please thee’.
The tone becomes more urgent in the sestet as the speaker twice calls on sleep to ‘save’ him. The two imperatives which end the sonnet - ‘turn’ and ‘seal’ are succinct and again suggest the urgency with which the speaker needs sleep’s gentle attention in order to be saved from attack by his ‘woes’ and ‘curious conscience’.
The whole poem is full of soft sounds (e.g. ‘f’ and ‘m’ in the opening quatrain), long vowels (‘gloom-pleased’, ‘embowered’, ‘soothest’ etc.) and sibilants (‘still’, ‘shutting’, ‘enshaded’). 
The gentle fluidity of sleep’s actions are further suggested by the instances of enjambement: ‘close / In midst of this thine hymn’, ‘ere the poppy throws / Around my bed’, and ‘will shine / Upon my pillow’.
The word ‘deftly’ is again chosen for the softness of its sound as well as its meaning of ‘cleverly’ and ‘dexterously’.

Investigating language and tone in To Sleep

  • What sound effects can you find in the poem and what is their effect?
  • What is the effect of ‘soothest’, a word Keats invented? 
    • Can you think of another, more conventional word which would produce the same effect?
  • What do you think Keats means by ‘curious conscience’ in line 11?
  • There are four imperative verbs in the sestet – what does this convey about the speaker’s state of mind?
    • What does the repetition of ‘save me add to the mood?

Structure and versification in To Sleep

This sonnet is experimental in form. It is basically a Shakespearean sonnet but Keats makes modifications in the sestet, which he rhymes bc efef, thus avoiding the final couplet and at the same time tying the sestet’s rhyme-scheme into the octet’s.
The octave focuses on sleep as an embalmer and soother, an agent of love (‘lulling charities’). The sestet disrupts this idea of well-being with its mention of the conscience ‘burrowing’. The poet’s personal disruption needs containing, which the smooth mechanical perfection of sleep (‘deft’, ‘oiled’, ‘seal’) can effect. Or can it? Andrew Motion in Keats (1997) has commented:
For all the delicious drowsiness of the lines, their rhymes work hard to modify the Shakespearean form, avoiding the final couplet, to convey a sense of irresolution and openness.     

Investigating structure and versification in To Sleep

  • What is Keats hoping to achieve by adapting the Shakespearean sonnet form?
  • Do you think Andrew Motion is right in suggesting that the form helps to achieve a ‘sense of irresolution and openness’?
  • What is the relationship between the sections of the sonnet?
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