To Sleep: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in To Sleep

Sleep is personified as an embalmer with fingers capable of shutting human eyes and as someone with a key which can lock troubling thoughts inside the soul. It is also endowed with life-saving properties, able to exclude the woes which lurk at the bottom of consciousness. 
The conscience is depicted as a mole ‘burrowing’ its way through memory. Moles are destructive and the enemy of anyone who cares about an ordered life, as expressed through an ordered lawn.
The soul in turn is seen as a ‘hushed casket’, as something within which precious things are locked away. The surface of this ‘casket’ may give no indication (or perhaps a misleading impression) of what lies inside. 

Investigating imagery and symbolism in To Sleep

  • What is the effect of sleep being personified?
    • How do you respond to the idea of sleep as an embalmer?
  • How do you respond to the mole metaphor?
  • What associations does the word ‘casket’ have for you?
    • How do they affect your response to human soul being described?

Themes in To Sleep

The poem is about the power of sleep to restore the sleeper. The speaker clearly feels that human beings cannot tolerate too much consciousness and need periods of ‘forgetfulness divine’ when the soul can be protected from the troubling thoughts which lurk beneath the surface of conscious thought.
There is an ambiguity about ‘curious conscience, that still hoards / Its strength for darkness,’ (l.11-12). Is Keats saying that the conscience is something that operates most effectively during the hours of darkness, or is he saying that the conscience is strongest when it delves into the darkest deeds or attitudes? The image of the conscience digging down, disrupting things long buried and bringing spoil to the surface is disturbing. Rather than confronting the depths, Keats would rather that they were safely locked away and their power contained. Typically of a poet who valued pain alongside joy, the casket image also suggests the preservation of these memories for the future, rather than that they should be rejected or destroyed.
It is significant that Keats is not appealing for some sort of creative trance in this poem. This is not a writer imploring his Muse to grant him inspiration. Rather it is an appeal for the opposite. As Andrew Motion has said: ‘[The poem] hankers after a calm nowhere, accepting that the pains of “curious conscience” cannot be deferred indefinitely.’

Investigating themes in To Sleep

  • The poem is partly about the power of sleep to restore the mind and body. What other themes can you find in the poem?
  • Andrew Motion says that the poem ‘hankers after a calm nowhere’. Do you agree with this? 
    • If so, why might Keats desire freedom from consciousness?
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