“But then begins a journey in my head”: Shakespeare’s Haunting Poetry of Sleeplessness

Following a day of rest after weeks of weary toil, I did not hasten to my bed last evening. I had succeeded in finding repose over the weekend–a discovery that had been dear these last few weeks. Nighttime sleeplessness of late has sent me to the text by lamplight. One night last month, after tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I opened Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part 2 and read:

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Unfortunately, I am not one of the King’s subjects who purchases in toil and poverty what the King cannot afford in intellectual perspective and material riches. Though I have no crown, but merely a small golden sceptre of the little maker’s art, the king is clearly correct about the weight of care:

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
I wonder what I am up against?

“O sleep, O gentle sleep,” is this how I have frightened thee away? I still don’t have the answer to that question–despite its importance both for my night-wandering.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I reached for Macbeth in the middle of the night:

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast

When I first turned that startling page, I was worried that sleep may be gone for good. However, it is not my conscience that keeps me awake. Though sleeplessness and madness sound the hours of the clock in Macbeth like a hammer on anvil, I have chosen not to seek the ministering spirits to cloak night and encourage murderous thoughts to their ends. This is not how I want to find the end of my life’s prophecy or curse. Still, with restless Macbeth who has murdered sleep even as his wife has called for everlasting night, I suffer the same dis-ease: my sleeves of care are still unravelled, my sore labour remains unbathed, and unceasing are the thoughts which course fruitlessly through my mind.

And then last night, rested but ready for sleep, sleep would not come. I wandered the corridors of my mind before giving up and reaching for a book.

It was a good reading time. I finished a good, hard book in manuscript form that was long past due. But in closing the page and winking off the light, I found myself mentally sitting at my desk. For having finished the book there are now two days of work to do on it. Good work, to be sure. Work I love.

It is the two days that I lack.

And so this morning, waking late with only a couple of hours of sleep, I made coffee and opened Shakespeare‘s sonnets with little expectation. I was puzzled by the bard’s summer day comparison, so I flipped on. Then in Sonnet #27, I read:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travail tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired…

Yes, yes, there it is, “a journey in my head.” I don’t understand this poem at this bleary-eyed moment–even with coffee in hand. Perhaps the beloved is actually a lover and not a poem or friend or heart’s ambition. But I am struck by the good thing, the beautiful thing, the “soul’s imaginary sight” that is “like a jewel hung in ghastly night.” This dream or friend or lover “Makes black night beauteous” and renews his vision of the beloved. And yet this beautiful image is the “zealous pilgrimage” that keeps his “drooping eyelids open wide” and causes him to meet the darkness with an unquiet mind.

It is a striking problem: Not the weight of the world (like Henry) or the burden of conscience (like Macbeth). Instead, it may be the Good out of reach that worketh on my mind and “begins a journey in my head.”

Do I dare turn the page?

Well, there it is again, Sonnet 28: I am debarred the benefit of rest. Day’s oppression is not eas’d by night but now day and night oppress each other as “enemies to either’s reign” who have agreed to torture me in their civil war. Day is brutalized by toil while night weaponizes the complaint of toil in the face of a starless, swarthy space of pain. The fight, the fight:

But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger.

Well, if I cannot quiet the mind at night I must take up the toil of day. So I write.

And because of the beauty of the lines–and in case there are others who walk the mind-halls of sleeplessness, I leave you this pair of sonnets with the help of Sir Patrick Stewart. I turn now to some other poet–someone other than Shakespeare, who eclipses the days and nights and centuries between us with a prophecy (or curse) of the journey in my head.

“Sonnet 27: Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,” by William Shakespeare

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travail tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see;

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel hung in ghastly night
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new:

Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

“Sonnet 28: How can I then return in happy plight,” by William Shakespeare

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eas’d by night,
But day by night and night by day oppressed,

And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.

I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion’d night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.

But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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1 Response to “But then begins a journey in my head”: Shakespeare’s Haunting Poetry of Sleeplessness

  1. Pingback: “We Became to America what the Huns Had Been to Us”: C.S. Lewis and the European Colonization of America | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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