Overcome by a deep, unrequited love, as well as suffering from the withdrawal symptoms from opium, Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a lot of heavy topics on his mind when writing his poem “The Pains of Sleep”. On the surface, Coleridge’s poem seems to be simply about how painful Coleridge finds it to fall asleep over the course of a few nights. However, a deeper analysis reveals that Coleridge is making a confession of some sort- of a lack of religion in his life, a lack of love, and an opium addiction that has sparked for withdrawal symptoms to begin appearing in the life of Coleridge- in his sleep and in his poetry.
“The Pains of Sleep” is broken up into three stanzas, each appearing to be about falling asleep, and each growing more restless than the one proceeding it. The first stanza can be compared to one praying before falling asleep. Coleridge uses words such as “pray” and “bended knees”, bended knees providing the reader with the imagery of one kneeling beside their beds to pray before climbing in for rest. “Spirit”, “reverential resignation”, “my soul”, “unblest”, “Eternal strength and Wisdom” also tie into religious imagery within the mind of the reader, which may symbolize that Coleridge is facing some sort of religious crisis in writing this poem.
Coleridge goes on to say, “In humble trust mine eye-lids close,/ With reverential resignation” (Lines 6-7), meaning that every night when he closes his eyes to surrender himself to sleep, he places his faith in God, resigning his control over his own life as he is allowing for himself to be in the most vulnerable state possible. Coleridge also goes on to say,
“A sense o’er all my soul imprest/ That I am weak, yet not unblest,/ Since in me, round me, every where/ Eternal strength and Wisdom are.” (Lines 10-13).
In other words, Coleridge means that even though, in the grand scheme of things, he is small and insignificant, he believes that he is still important due to the skill of being able to recognize God’s beauty in the world and convey it through his poetry.
The first stanza maintains an “aabb” rhyming scheme- however, this scheme is interrupted around line 7, switching very briefly to an “abab” rhyming scheme before reverting back, symbolizing a very brief, almost unnoticeable interruption in both the poem as well as Coleridge’s sleep.
Coleridge employs alliteration throughout the poem, relying on the use of the letter “s” to create a softer effect of the poem, and can be compared to a soft whisper that one may use when trying to induce sleep.
Everything shifts in the second stanza- Coleridge’s poem is becoming interrupted with sharper sounds, different rhyme schemes, and is bursting with overwhelming emotion, making the soft whisper found throughout the first stanza ineffective in aiding the quest for sleep that Coleridge desperately seeks.
The rhyme scheme of the poem is interrupted multiple times, more noticeably and often than in the first stanza, and can be compared to the interruptions one finds when finding it difficult to fall asleep. The “s” and “sh” sounds are replaced by sharper sounds- the “s” is usually followed or proceeded by a “t” or “c” to create the sharper sound-effects. For example, Coleridge uses words such as “yester-night“, “up-starting”, “scorned”, “strong”, “thirst“, “still”, “strangely”, “objects“, “fantastic“, and “stifling” to create a sharper effect in the reading, which can be compared to emotions of chaos or violence.
Coleridge also uses words such as “anguish”, “agony”, “fiendish”, “tortured”, “intolerable wrong”, “scorned”, “revenge”, “powerless”, “burning”, “loathing”, “hateful”, “maddening”, “shame”, “terror”, “confused”, “suffered” “guilt”, “remorse”, “woe”, and “fear” to create imagery in the reader of emotions such as feeling fear or being upset. These emotions can be compared to what one may feel when their sleep has begun to be interrupted, be it by something internal (a nightmare, a lot on one’s mind), or external (a loud noise/interruption that causes one to wake from sleep). It is also important to note that Coleridge makes a confession of some sort:
“Deeds to be hid which were not hid,/ Which all confused I could not know/ Whether I suffered, or I did…” (Lines 27-9).
In other words, Coleridge explains that there are deeds that exist that need to be concealed due to a certain shame revolving around them, but have not yet been hidden due to confusion that Coleridge feels towards them.
The third and final stanza, once again, takes a dramatic shift- Coleridge has now suffered through “two nights” of this painful, restless, sleep, and has finally had enough when he writes his climax:
“The third night, when my own loud scream/ Had waked me from the fiendish dream,/ O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,/ I wept as I had been a child.” (Lines 37-40).
The dreams that Coleridge faces appears to be so terrifying, that it wakes him from his sleep, causing for him to actually cry. This appears to be the climax, because immediately following this event, Coleridge writes,
“And having thus by tears subdued/ My anguish to a milder mood…” (Lines 40-41).
It appears as though Coleridge’s tears act as an emotional purge, allowing for him to finally release the turmoil and restlessness that has built within him for the past few nights. Religious imagery returns once again as Coleridge uses words such as “blessing”, “sin”, and “hell”- these words create emotions within the reader of dread. This dread for Coleridge is a dread of punishment for the sins that he has committed, which signifies to the reader that a confession needs to be made- of the sins that he has committed. Coleridge concludes this stanza and his entire poem with,
“To be loved is all I need,/ And whom I love, I love indeed.” (Lines 50-51).
Although Coleridge has a specific person in mind when writing these lines, as he has a person whom he “loves indeed”, he still maintains his own need for this love to be requited- which it clearly isn’t. The fact that this is mentioned in the final two lines of the poem signifies to the reader that this was the overall point that Coleridge seemed to struggle with throughout the entirety of his poem.
In conclusion, although Coleridge uses many words that symbolize some sort of religious imagery for the reader, his struggle appears to be more spiritual than religious, as he does not mention God’s name anywhere throughout his poem. This turmoil also seems to be a result of some heavy thinking- perhaps about a woman who Coleridge loves, a woman who is unable to return the love that Coleridge feels towards her (Mary Evans perhaps?). Finally, the turmoil that Coleridge describes throughout the entirety of his work seems to be, unbeknownst perhaps even to him, of the withdrawal one faces from opium. The full effects of opium as well as what happens when one stops taking it after consuming it over an extended period of time were not completely understood by those of the Romantic Era, which could explain Coleridge’s night terrors as well as his restlessness.