A Few of Our Favorite Verses about Sleep and All Its Virtues

In honor of World Poetry Day on March 21st, we thought we would share some of our favorite verses from our favorite poems about sleep. 

Sleep is one of a very few universal human experiences – it’s the state where we, as humans, are most vulnerable to a whole host of dangers. And yet, we can’t go too long without good sleep, or else we risk other major health problems. Themes commonly associated with sleep in poetry throughout many cultures are death, dreams, rest, memories, nostalgia, and peace. 

So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

Albert Goldbarth, “The Sciences Sing a Lullaby”

Full text: https://poets.org/poem/sciences-sing-lullabye

“Physics says: go to sleep. Of course

you’re tired. Every atom in you

has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes

nonstop from mitosis to now.

Quit tapping your feet. They’ll dance

inside themselves without you. Go to sleep…”

This first stanza of Albert Goldbarth’s “The Sciences Sing a Lullaby” is exceptionally relatable to every single person, especially now. The pandemic and ongoing social upheaval have wrought a million small changes that have affected every single person’s life for two years (or longer). In that context, this line hits especially hard: 

“Of course / you’re tired. Every atom in you / has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes / nonstop from mitosis to now.”

With the abrupt loss of “normal” life two years ago and the struggle to quickly adapt to new ways of living, all of us have been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes for two years – of course we’re tired. But still we feel the urge to dance the shimmy, not wanting to stop and rest. 

But Goldbarth’s poem says that the need to rest is written into every law of nature. Let yourself rest, too.  

John Keats, “To Sleep”

Full text: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44487/to-sleep-56d2239b832a2

“O soft embalmer of the still midnight,

      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,

Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,

      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine…”

For Keats, sleep is connected with death as a welcome respite of “forgetfulness divine” – a time when you can shed the worries and cares of the day. And honestly, who can blame him? Not us, we the people who hit “snooze” when our alarms ring and pull the blankets up over our heads to embower (or shelter) us from the sunlight. 

When we get out of bed, we become moms, dads, coworkers, bosses, caretakers, and more. We assume all of our worldly cares once we step out of bed. On days when those worldly cares seem like too much, sleep is a tempting alternative. 

Thomas Dekker, “Cradle Song (Golden Slumbers)”

https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/golden-slumbers

“Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,

Smiles awake you when you rise.

Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,

And I will sing a lullaby:

Rock them, rock them, lullaby…”

Playwright Thomas Dekker’s lullaby from his play Patient Grissel, and source material for the Beatles’ song “Golden Slumbers,” shows the gentle intimacy of watching a loved one, a child here, fall asleep. Falling asleep with someone else in the room is a sign of trust, since sleep is a human’s most vulnerable state. You know a baby is comfortable with you when they fall asleep in your arms. 

Many of you parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and caregivers of many kinds have been in those shoes: the little one is freshly bathed and put in jammies. Maybe you’ve read them a bedtime story or sung them a song until their little eyes just can’t stay open anymore (no matter how much they want to stay awake). So you wish them sweet dreams, get up, turn out the light, and look at them from the doorway with a special kind of love in your heart. 

That moment is something to be treasured – an everyday expression of love that means everything. 

W. H. Auden, “Lullaby”

https://poets.org/poem/lullaby-0

“Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful…”

Sleeping next to your partner or lover is similarly intimate – and Auden’s “Lullaby” is an entire love poem dedicated to that soft, sweet moment of comfort. Sleeping next to your partner even has a whole host of physical and emotional benefits, from increased trust to lowered blood pressure. 

Auden also does a beautiful job of describing that moment when nothing else matters: how the world will erode and destroy, but right now? All that matters is to “let the living creature lie…/… but to me / The entirely beautiful.”

What are some of your favorite poems? Let us know the verses that speak to you!