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22 July 2011

Sleep is supposed to be

Sleep is supposed to be
By souls of sanity 
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand 
Down wh', on either hand 
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be 
By people of degree 
The breaking of the Day.

Morning has not occurred!

That shall Aurora be— 
East of Eternity— One with the banner gay— 
One in the red array— 
That is the break of Day!

                                                                     J13, Fr 35 (1858)

It is tempting to read this poem as a contrast between normal sleeping and waking and that final waking with all the trumps and angels when the Faithful will be called to heaven. That is the real Morn despite what the worldly people think.

     However, this poem was described by Dickinson (in a letter to her friends the Hollands) as a note to her father who apparently used to knock on her door before daylight to wake her up. She prefaced the poem by writing:
      ‘To my Father –
       to whose untiring efforts in my behalf, I am indebted for my morning hours
       – viz – 3.AM to 12. PM. These grateful lines are inscribed by his aff. Daughter.’ (L198)

Read in this way, the poem reveals the animated and playful Dickinson described by those closest to her. It also hints at a close relationship with her father -- at least one that could bear teasing. "Look, Daddy, morning hasn't happened yet, okay? You know, that time when the big bright ball bounds up in the sky from the eastern part of the sky? Pretty clouds and all? That's morning."
     An image that intrigues me but that I can't quite figure out is that of the host of witnesses standing on either side of the grand station that sleep is. When I nod off I don't see many people... but then maybe Dickinson did, and a host of her friends and loved ones helped speed her on her way to sleep.


  1. I love your blog. Is it too late to comment on an entry from 2 1/2 years ago? I read the second paragraph as referring to the dreamworld that follows the shutting of the eye in the first paragraph. Like you, I don't see a host of people when I nod off. But I often do soon after!

    1. Okay, I concede the point. Dreams do take us to odd places and bizarre situations. I like the idea, upon reflection, of going to sleep as going to a grand station, full of people. Trains or carriages would be taking travelers in all directions. Good sleep adventure!

  2. 2nd Stanza - I don't think she's referring to people at all, but rather to "heavenly hosts" ... angels watching (witnessing) from above, in their station grand (heaven) as they look "down" upon her, perhaps guarding her (guardian angels) as she lies in the innocence of sleep.

    1. Additionally, this stance (set out above) in a poem to her father would seemingly lend support (highest support :-) to her plea, as well as appeal to his religious mindset.

    2. Good point! But that heavenly host is sleeping on the job... or perhaps they, too, defer to the father.

  3. Replies
    1. Aurora coming in splendid attire -- the red clouds of dawn. That's my take.

  4. Thanks again for your blog -- it's a great touchstone for reading and conversation about Dickinson and her work.

    As often as readers see titles inserted above Dickinson's work (even in Franklin and so many other places), Dickinson did not title her work and her position on this topic was firm -- to say the least! I would urge your readers to take a look at Cristanne Millers superb monument to editing Dickinson's poems as she actually preserved them (The Belknap Press, 2016). This is the only edition that presents her work arranged in the folios she bound herself.

    As for the poem with the first line "Sleep is supposed to be" you have two typos that I can't talk myself out of not mentioning: Line 5 in the holograph of Dickinson's own hand reads: "Down wh', on either hand," a syncope; and in the last line of the poem the word "That" is underlined. Since you are presenting the poem in italics, the convention would be simply to unitalicize that word or to underline it.

    Back to the syncope. I know it may seem trivial at first, but the syncope in Line 5 is actually important, since Dickinson clearly wanted to emphasize the spondees in the first position in the first lines of the first three stanzas ("Sleep is" and "Morn is"). Inserting "Down which" instead of "Down wh'" actually turns the trochee she wrote into the spondee ("Down which"). Her construction "Down wh'" also offers the ambiguity of suggesting "which" and perhaps "downward." As I read this poem, the effect of not having spondees in the second and third lines of the first three stanzas is effective in emphasizing the strong trochees that launch those stanzas.

    Your reference to Dickinson's own dig on her father's control of the household and the bleary cul-de-sacs this left for her to pursue her work, is an important footnote to the poem. This is one of my favorite Dickinson poems, and I have to guess that Dickinson would be gratified to see readers drawn into the gravity of "the station grand."

    Thanks again for your blog. This is a monumental effort!


    1. Thanks, Stephen -- it's fixed. I am in total agreement about Miller's book. It's the first place I look when beginning a new poem; that and the online Dickinson Archive repros of the poems. While my first impulse was to downplay the argument that 'wh'' vs 'which' offer substantive differences in the poem, after reading the revised poem I see what you mean. It is a precise thing having a lot to do, I think, with Dickinson's precise sense of rhythm. In this poem the rhythm is jazzy; the 'Morning has not occurred' percussive. The 'ich' of 'which' is a thumb on the metric balance. I appreciate your noting it!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks, Larry. That formatting really got messed up!

  6. Harvard Letter 198 is a brief note, ‘To my Father’, followed by ED’s poem, ‘Sleep is meant to be”, which ED sent as a letter to Susan Dickinson about 1858, perhaps for Susan's editorial comments or perhaps as a record of a letter ED had given her father. The note to her father thanks him for relieving her of her chores in the kitchen between 3 AM and 12 PM, presumably at ED’s request, to allow time for gardening and writing. Here’s the note’s closing and signature:

    “These grateful lines are inscribed by his aff