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S.T. Coleridge’s “The Pains of Sleep” Essay

In this poem, Coleridge reveals his reluctance to sleep and the reasons behind the reluctance. What he doesn’t happen upon in his lyrical exploration of his guilt ridden dreams, is that the, what we would refer to as the depression he is experiencing, is most likely caused by his withdrawal from Opiates. Also exacerbating the symptoms is the fact that his is still using Ether for his “fits” (Abrams et al. 462). From a poetic standpoint, “The Pains of Sleep” is well layered, interesting, and if one is simply reading it, is enjoyable. However, when analyzing this poem, the reader can’t help but ask if Coleridge’s dependency on Opiates contributed heavily to the subject matter. One does not have to be a substance abuse expert to read between the lines and discover the answer to that question.

Coleridge opens the piece with himself in bed, lying there, quiet, welcoming the sleep that awaits him. He makes the point of saying,

“It hath not been my use to pray”,

this statement can be viewed in two ways. He could simply be

taking a swipe at the Church or, as I believe, he is foreshadowing the fact that

he will indeed be praying for peaceful sleep by poems end. He describes at

great length the feeling of confidence he has, “Since in me, round me, every

where Eternal strength and wisdom are”. He is drifting off to Neverland with

absolutely no idea what awaits him. Coleridge was probably able to avoid the

pains of withdrawal during the daytime because he was still using the anesthetic

Ether. At Bedtime he most likely took one more big huff and hopped in bed, thus

the ability to go to sleep. The problem is that the Ether would eventually

wear off and withdrawal pains would come knocking again, thus causing the

nightmares that he chronicles in the following stanzas.

The second stanza begins with the very vocal and intense praying that Coleridge made a point of saying he didn’t do in line 2. He is praying for release from a terrible nightmare that is plaguing his sleep. He vividly describes a Frankensteinian search party/lynch mob absolutely maddened by some sort of grave injustice. He isn’t able to identify the motivation of the “trampling throng”, but knows there is a “Sense of intolerable wrong. And whom I scorned, those only strong!”. He feels an immeasurable guilt, but doesn’t even know how he is involved, “Which all confused I could not know, Whether I suffered, or I did”.

It is interesting how honest Coleridge is in this poetic recount of his nightmare. He doesn’t try to dress up the story or give it particularly glossy details, because there often isn’t in nightmares, drug induced or not. I have had some of the strangest nightmares and specific details can’t be recalled. I can remember general situations, like Coleridge uses, but can’t ever remember the reasons behind the situations. Where Coleridge differs from a non drug user, is that when he awakes, he is haunted by his dreams, he is utterly depressed by that facts that he had this terrible dream, and more that that, he has no clue what it was about. What makes the situation worse is that he decides it doesn’t matter, “For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe, My own or others still the same”. That passage furthers the point that he had no idea what was going on, and frankly, didn’t care. He doesn’t change, the Ether use continues and so does his nightmares.

In the final section, Coleridge picks up the story two nights later. Two nights of the same thing, he is growing very resentful of, “Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me Distemper’s worst calamity”. Line 37 tells of the third night of the “calamity” of sleep. He literally wakes himself up because he is screaming, and begins to cry like a child. This is a person in the grips of serious narcotic withdrawal and he hasn’t a clue. His recurring nightmare is most likely a hallucination of some kind. It has all the elements: an absurd situation, lack of reason, and most telling of all, a sense of fear and paranoia surround the whole thing. Once again, Coleridge medicates his problem, “And having thus by tears subdued My anger to a milder mood”. I believe this is a drug reference. Seeing no end to the nightmares that have culminated in him waking up screaming, crying, and feeling an unreasonable guilt, Coleridge takes a few drops, or “tears”, of Laudanum.

He calms down, and reasons that this is something all sinners go through, it must be some sort of cleansing process. The confidence that loomed in the first stanza returns with, “Such punishments, I said, were due To natures deepliest stained with sin, –…Such griefs with such men well agree, But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?”. This ignorance, can easily be misconstrued as arrogance, what makes it ignorance was that he had no idea what he had just gone through, nor did he apparently care, it was far easier to pass the blame on to God for cursing him accidentally. The depth at which Coleridge is lost is never more evident that in the last couplet, “To be beloved is all I need, And whom I love, I love indeed.”.

In closing, I hope that this analysis shows the different twist that can be put on any work if the reader just knows a few different details surrounding it.

Coleridge was an addict before there was such a thing, and it almost drove him insane. His ignorance throughout “The Pains of Sleep” is evident, as too is his unbreakable addiction. The reader can’t help but be sorry for him, but it is an important piece nonetheless because of the honesty he tells the story with. And besides, throughout it all, Coleridge was ever the Romantic, because, all he needed was, “To be beloved”.

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