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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.
As the first British Empire began to expand from 1583 until 1783, the popularity of colonialism and slave trade began to grow as well. Many Europeans felt that exploiting the natives of areas such as the West Indies and Africa was an intelligent approach, as they could utilize these tactics to make labor cheap. However, not all members of the British Empire were on board with slavery, one such example being Aphra Behn, an influential female writer of the Restoration period. In Oroonoko, Behn’s true story of an African prince who became a slave of the colony of Suriname, Behn utilizes the noble savage ideal as well as constantly insisting on the validity of her story with the purpose of invoking powerful emotions into her audience. These emotions function to subtly persuade her audience to see slave trade and exploitation colonialism from her more critical point of view.
Before analyzing Behn’s text in detail, it is important to first understand the background of her life, and how she had come to meet Oroonoko, an African prince who was tricked into slavery. As a child, Behn’s father had been appointed governor of Suriname, an exploitation colony located in South America. On their voyage to the colony, Behn’s father passed away, making her visit to Suriname much shorter than anticipated. Throughout her narrative, Behn consistently insists on the validity and honesty of the tale, making the claim right from the start, “I do not pretend… to entertain my reader with adventures of a feigned hero… it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues.” (Behn 95). The purpose of these constant assurances of Behn’s “eye-witness” (Behn 95) accounts, although obnoxious, is to create a rapport within the audience, drawing them into the tale to provide a much more powerful emotional impact later on. As her plot progresses towards its climax, Behn’s utilizes the validity of her tale to instill horror in her audience at the conditions in which Oroonoko and his family were treated. At the end of her tale, Behn describes the atrocity of Oroonoko’s execution in horrific detail, describing how the executioner “… first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire; and after that… they cut off his ears and his nose… then they hacked off one of his arms.” (Behn 134). These grisly details creates feelings of disgust, horror, and astonishment, thus serving Behn’s intent of persuading her audience against the idea of slavery.
The noble savage ideal is a literary term attributed to a type of stock literary character, and romanticizes the idea of supposed innocence within native, primitive societies, and their belief that all human beings are essentially good. This naïve belief is due to a lack of exposure to more civilized, advanced, and corrupt societies. Behn’s account was one of the first literary materials attributed to this term, which she utilizes in her tale to invoke empathy within the audience towards the challenges that Oroonoko undergoes and the betrayal he faces. Behn begins her narrative by describing the slaves of the Suriname colony as people that “… represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew hot to sin… Religion here would but destroy that tranquility they possess by innocence; and laws would teach ‘em to know offence, of which now they have no notion.” (Behn 96). Due to a lack of interaction with the more civilized societies, such as that of England, Oroonoko and his native people are accustomed to a much more simpler way of living. This innocence instills almost a protective-like feeling within the audience- due to this lack of experience of the evils of humankind, the audience almost wants to reach out to these native people and warn them of their impending doom in order to maintain the peaceful tranquility among their society.
Although one may argue that Alpha Behn’s narrative would not be an anti-slavery text based on the evidence that Behn is a white settler re-telling the tale of a diseased African slave, as well as on the evidence that Behn does not make any direct critiques against slavery itself, this is not the case. “She never criticizes slavery directly, but the perspective of the victimized hero promotes a critique of slavery nonetheless.” (Nestvold). Having published her account around 1688, slave trade’s popularity had been at its peak, and it would still be well over a hundred years before slave trade would be abolished. To paint the native slaves in her account with such human qualities, Behn is essentially making the subtle statement to her past and much more narrow-minded audience that slaves are just as much of humans as the settlers that captured, sold, and possessed them were. By painting slaves in this light, Behn helps for her audience to feel for the protagonist of her story, emphasizing with him and wanting to take action against the atrocities and betrayals that he had faced by so many of European settlers. For example, the captain that had captured Oroonoko had tricked him into slavery, “The day being come, the captain… rowed to shore to receive the prince… with which Oroonoko was extremely delighted.” (Behn 111), and then later intoxicates Oroonoko and his people, placing iron cuffs on them, and sells them into slavery. This constant process of Oroonoko being treated with admiration and respect by the European settlers is constantly repeated throughout the tale, and with Oroonoko as the protagonist of the entire narrative, it is not difficult for the audience to feel sympathy for the hero’s constant demise due to the disloyalty of the settlers.
Although it is debatable of whether or not Behn’s purpose in writing this “history” was to criticize slavery itself, Behn’s narrative truly speaks for itself. By describing the noble lives of the slaves that she had met and the struggles that they had endured, casting a humanized light upon her subject, Behn creates a relation between her audience and Oroonoko, which thus creates feelings of empathy and sympathy within the audience. By invoking these emotions, Behn is discreetly persuading her audience to see slavery in a much more sinister light. Although she is not direct and to the point in her critique, the time period in which Behn published this text was a time in which female authors had not yet risen to the level and popularity of their male counterparts, nor was slavery anywhere near the point of even being considered abolished. By making her persuasion subtle, Behn is able to create a narrative that would still have the potential to become popular within her audience, while at the same time, would slip the notion of slavery being wrong within the psyche of the reader. By utilizing the noble savage ideal to create feelings of empathy within the reader, Behn achieves her purpose in creating a text that critiques against the slave trade of the Restoration Period itself.
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. South Australia: The U of Adelaide Library, 2009.
Nestvold, Ruth. “The White Mistress and the Black Slave: Aphra Behn, Racism and the Beginnings of Novelistic Discourse.” Art-Lit.net. The Aphra Behn Page, 1995. Web. 10 <http://www.lit-arts.net/Behn/begin-ab.htmMar. 2017>
“Quill Quest” is a theoretical mobile application geared towards college students and functions to aid students in writing any important papers or essays on an endless amount of topics. This presentation was completed as a project for the Restoration Period. The link to the presentation is located below: