The Pains of Sleep by Coleridge: Analysis & Overview

Instructor: Debbie Notari
If you have ever had a poor night's sleep or have even experienced nightmares, then you might be able to relate to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem 'The Pains of Sleep.' In this lesson we will both summarize and analyze the poet's terrible nighttime experience.

Background on Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Poem

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote 'The Pains of Sleep' in 1803. It is one of his 'conversational poems' because Coleridge is the speaker. Coleridge was a sensitive individual who married a woman he didn't really love, Sara Fricker. He was talked into the marriage by a friend. Later, he fell in love with another woman, Sara Hutchison, who was related to his friend and fellow poet, Wordsworth, by marriage. For the rest of his life, he suffered from unrequited love as well as from physical ailments. It seems, too, that he was plagued with depression. Unfortunately, he became addicted to laudanum, a type of opium. This, of course, had an impact on his writing. It makes sense that Coleridge would have difficulty sleeping at times when he was dealing with such weighty personal problems. It is also astonishing that in spite of all of his physical and emotional problems, Coleridge could produce such outstanding poems as he did.

'The Pains of Sleep' has three stanzas, each detailing one night of sleep for Coleridge and each growing progressively more restless. In this lesson, we will analyze each one. The poem is a little lengthy, so hang in there!

Stanza One

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
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.

This first stanza describes a normal night's sleep for Coleridge. He speaks of a sort of praying, though he's not saying specific words. He feels 'weak, yet not unblest.' He also feels Divine strength and wisdom. But the next night, things are not so peaceful.

Stanza Two

But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!
And shame and terror over all!
Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know
Whether I suffered, or I did:
For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

This night is much different for Coleridge, and it's intensely troubling. It is as if his spirit is so heavy he can't stand the oppressive weight. He feels unexplained 'terror' and 'shame.' Everything Coleridge experiences is based in emotions; he can point to nothing as the cause. And things are only going to get worse on the third night.

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