Tag Archives: Poems about sleep

O thou that sleep’st like pig in straw


William Davenant was a prominent poet of the Stuart age, his career spanning the reign of Charles I, the Civil War and Interregnum, and the Restoration of Charles II. He started a rumour, unintentionally, I think, or jokingly, that he was the illegitimate son of William Shakespeare: what he meant to say is that he had drawn his love for poetry and theatre from his reading of the bard’s oeuvre. He was well-known, and good enough to receive royal patronage (and, during the Interregnum, a measure of tolerance from the Cromwellian authorities) and was numbered among those poets classed Cavalier Poets. He was the butt of all sorts of jokes on account of his disfigured – that is, mostly disintegrated – nose, the result of a mercury-based treatment for syphilis, which he contracted from a prostitute. If his poetry is anything to go by (which, of course, it may not be), his disfigurement did not hinder his success with the opposite sex, about whom he continued to write poetry.

The poem below is a lyric from one of Davenant’s plays, which are not widely available these days, so it could be that some details of the poem relate to the play this was taken from. Perhaps the arch tone belongs to a character of that play too, and is not meant to represent Davenant’s own poetic persona. However, the lyric has reached us as a distinct poem, anthologised as such, while the play has been largely forgotten (so much so that where the poem is anthologised, I cannot find the play it is from mentioned by name), so I think it is fair to treat it as such. In any case, it is consistent with the way in which he wrote to and about women in his poetry.


O thou that sleep’st like pig in straw,
Thou lady dear, arise;
Open (to keep the sun in awe)
Thy pretty pinking eyes:
And, having stretched each leg and arm,
Put on your clean white smock,
And then I pray, to keep you warm,
A petticoat or dock.
Arise, arise! Why should you sleep
When you have slept enough?
Long since, French boys cried Chimney-sweep,
And damsels Kitchen-stuff.
The shops were opened long before,
And youngest prentice goes
To lay at’s master’s chamber-door
His master’s shining shoes.
Arise, arise! your breakfast stays,
Good water-gruel warm,
Or sugar-sops, which Galen says
With mace, will do no harm.
Arise, arise! when you are up
You’ll find more to your cost,
For morning’s draught in caudle-cup,
Good nutbrown ale, and toast.

The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, Ed. Alastair Fowler, Oxford, 1991

To very sensitive souls, the first line of the poem, ‘thou that sleep’st like pig in straw’ sounds a bit nasty. As someone whose teenage self was called out of bed each weekend with a resolute ‘Get out your pit’, it sounds rather familiar, almost affectionate. And this impression is confirmed in the next seven lines or so: the adjectives used to describe the woman and her dressing are indeed affectionate, though humble and homely – dear, pretty, clean. We’re a distance away from pure and Platonic invocations of ideal love here and firmly in the familiar setting of the home – the bedroom to be precise. There is a nod to the more elevated traditions of the courtly love poetry that so dominated the previous century where Davenant says that the lady opening her eyes will ‘keep the sun in awe’, but this phrase, a parenthesized aside, is surely tongue in cheek, given that the ‘awe’ the lady will keep the awe in is rhymed most contrastingly with ‘straw’.

In any case, lovelorn poets in the Petrarchan tradition are supposed to pine outside their lover’s door, and it sounds very much like the poet here is speaking from inside the bedroom, or at least imagining himself to be so. Or perhaps he is down in the kitchen calling his lover up – in any case, there is no wooing to be done. The beginning of the poem is also ever so slightly sensual, or voyeuristic even: we are watching a woman get dressed here, and Davenant lingers on the details of her doing so  – going so far as to refer to her ‘dock’ – her rump – under the pretence of concern that she keeps herself warm. NOTE: As Cynthia has pointed out in the comments, the voice here could as easily be the woman’s maid or long-time companion rather than her lover, which explains why she’s making her breakfast. Nevertheless, I still detect a little of what feminists call ‘the male gaze’ in the way the poet describes the lady.

The poet contrasts the lady to the people in the neighbourhood who have long-since got up and started their day’s business. The intent here is partly to tease: he cannot surely expect her to follow the example of apprentices, chimney-sweeps and trades-women; she is a lady, after all. But he (or she, if it is a maid speaking) knows she cannot take gladly to being compared to such people. Perhaps the poet is engaging in a little stealth-boasting here too, signalling to his readers that the woman he is addressing is no mere commoner, and on a different social level than apprentices, kitchen girls or chimney sweeps (or, er, prostitutes), which is the very reason she does not actually need to be up as early. I suspect that by modern standards, most everybody in Stuart Britain could be classed an early-riser, but then as now the working classes would be up and about ahead of their social betters. I wonder a little about those French chimney sweeps. Could that be a reference to the play this lyric was taken from, or is a bit of social background from contemporary London? Were Huguenot refugees in seventeenth century London monopolising the chimney cleaning industry? It seems plausible. The other figures alluded to the poem also help to build a picture of a London street of the mid-seventeenth century – young girls selling vegetables, boys shining their masters shoes – before the focus of the poem moves on, and finishes with the comforts of the upper-middle class home, that is, a lovely warm breakfast.

Gruel has a grim association to the modern ear, associated with poverty and flavourlessness, but here it denotes a kind of porridge, and not a particularly bad kind. Sugar sops is bread dunked in sugared water or ale – the English have ever loved food that is comforting though not particularly nutritious. Mace is a kind of nutmeg. I’m not sure how the 2nd century Greek physician would have known of such comforts, but Davenant was presumably well read in the classics, as most poets of his era were, so I guess we’ll have to take his word for it. Another habit the English have preserved down the ages is starting the day with a hot drink, the ‘caudle cup’ of the poem. Since the poem predates the widespread use of tea in England, I’m not quite sure what that hot drink would be – something tasty and not particularly nutritious, I would hazard.

One habit we (unfortunately) haven’t preserved down the ages is starting the day with a nice drink of beer, the pre-tea thirst-quencher of choice in pre-Empire days. ‘Nutbrown ale’ sounds tasty– it’s like something you’d read in the explanatory notes on the label of your craft beer – but there may be a sensual undertone there too. The epithet ‘nut-brown’ had been used since medieval times to describe the skin tone of a working girl, of the kind that poets were sure were less trouble (to woo, to bed and so on) than the pink-skinned daughters of noblemen. Thomas Campion explains her so, giving her the Classical name of Amaryllis:

If I love Amaryllis, 

She gives me fruit and flowers: 

But if we love these ladies, 

We must give golden showers. 

Give them gold, that sell love, 

Give me the nut-brown lass, 

Who, when we court and kiss, 

She cries, “Forsooth, let go!” 

But when we come where comfort is, 

She never will say no. 

I care not for thee Ladies, The New Oxford book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, Ed. Emyrys Jones, Oxford, 1991

The ‘Nut-brown maid’ was also a character in an old ballad, known for her steadfast loyalty to a knight despite the great travails he and she had to go through. It would probably be a bit far-fetched to read much into that, to say for example that Davenant is hinting his lady friend be more like the humble and loyal nut-brown maid, but the association lingers there, perhaps part of the subtle teasing that underlines this otherwise affectionate get out of bed poem.



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How to Sleep

We have a guest blogger today on Sweettenorbull. ‘Harmonioustew’, as he is known online, just plain Stew to friends, is an old colleague of mine. We worked together in a language school in Seoul some years ago, and, while he’s settled in Seoul and I’ve returned to Blighty, we’ve kept in touch. Stew is a voluminous reader, amost single-handedly keeping Ittaewon’s English language bookshop in business, and an engaging, entertaining writer. His blog is http://harmonioustew.wordpress.com/ . ‘Warts and all’ doesn’t begin to describe it.

Stew hails from Boston, Massachusets, but he has chosen a poem by a glum old Englishman. Enjoy…

How to Sleep        (Philip Larkin)


Child in the womb,

Or saint on a tomb–

Which way shall I lie

To fall asleep?

The keen moon stares

From the back of the sky,

The clouds are all home

Like driven sheep. 

(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or else where on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it.)

The poem reads like a nursery rhyme.  Unlike a lot of poetry, it’s unintimidating and absolutely lucid upon a first reading.  The rhyme scheme is simple; the message is clear.  How should you sleep?  It’s one of those things you forget how to do over the years as life grows increasingly complicated, replete as it is with the demands of self-replicating responsibilities.

The opening two lines encompass birth and death–and sleep bookends our lives.  We start out slumbering in amniotic fluid inside our mothers’ bodies, living the good life (this is not meant as a snub of pro-choice people; I have no dog in that fight), until we’re officially wrenched into being by a rubber-gloved obstetrician and delivered to this great stage of fools.

The lines likewise remind me of a lyric from They Might Be Giants’ glockenspiel-enhanced ditty, “Shoehorn With Teeth”:  “What’s the sense of ever thinking ’bout the tomb/When you’re much too busy returning to the womb?”  (Come to think of it, the poem also advocates TMBG’s advice, though it’s not expressing an identical sentiment; the band was focused more on the nocturnal pursuit of concupiscent happiness; I’ll get to Larkin’s gist a little later, as it doesn’t come till the end of the poem.)

Philip Larkin was a subtle poet, and his simple style often belies a great deal of underlying ambiguity and complexity.  At the risk of reading too much into the third line of the poem (“Which way shall I lie?”), it suggests a double-meaning of the last word, as if he’s insisting he has to resort to subterfuge in order to drift off, either by impersonating the boy he know longer is or the saint he cannot be and wouldn’t dream of being in the first place (Larkin was an avowed atheist; his poems “Church Going” and “Faith Healing” testify to his lucid refusal to believe in an unprovable diety, while “Aubade” is a profound and touching meditation on death, which is something his lack of eternal life insurance made it hard for him to approach with anything resembling equanimity).

“The keen moon stares” like the eyes of the frustrated poet (compare this with a line from another Larkin poem, an ode to the sun called “Solar”:  “The eye sees you/Simplified by distance/Into an origin. . . ”  For someone who didn’t believe in God, Larkin appears to have mistaken certain heavenly bodies for eyes.  Did he suffer from an Orwellian fear of being watched?  That’s hardly an irrational fear to have these days.  Or did he write the poem while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs?  I doubt it; I’m pretty sure alcohol was his poison of choice.  I’ll drink to that).

He compares the clouds to sheep (which, of course, rhymes with “sleep”), suggesting he’s been counting them for a long time.  (Does anyone actually do this?  How could such an original poet resort to such pedestrian, cliched behavior?).  Then, in the second stanza, he captures the monotony of time’s passage, the chiming of the clock likened to plangent drops of water.

It only seems fitting that Larkin, a staid, bespectacled character who worked as a librarian for most of his life, should try out the saintly method of achieving slumber first, despite his iconoclastic rejection of all things religious.  After all, as he implies with the “lie” alluded to before, it’s only an impersonation.  Just as our individuality may well disintegrate as surely as our bodies do with the advent of death, it stands to reason that we become other selves during the temporary death afforded by sleep.  Who doesn’t need to take a long rest and turn off his or her “real” self once a day? 

The “sea-levelled sands” evokes deep breathing reminiscent of the heaving breast of the sea.  Larkin remains in limbo for awhile, his mind at peace, his thoughts subdued, but sleep still out of reach.

Then he resorts to the surefire approach of assuming the fetal position.  The final five lines of the poem are extraordinary in their remarkably eloquent wisdom.  Larkin has an astonishing ability to articulate profundity with grace throughout his work; his understated humor makes his poetry quintessentially British.  Not that he didn’t have a dark side, but he wrote (most of the time) like a distinguished gentlemen.

In fact, those last five lines embody the astonishing insight of the Buddha achieving enlightenment.  Sleep, like love, is about letting go of attachment.  The inevitable comparison with death is obvious, but one that bears remembering, since we’re all going to get there some day.  That’s why we’ve got to keep rehearsing every night, letting go of our preposterous egos and impossible projects, curling up like sighing little babies (if we’re lucky, as part of a post-coital interlude, not that babies should indulge in such behavior) and kissing consciousness goodnight.

We must become fetuses (feti?  let’s hope not fetid) in order to be born again upon awakening.

When the sun shines through the Venetian blinds that hang before my bedroom window, its rays silently shouting, “Hallelujah!  Get your lazy ass out of bed!” I cover my face with a black T-shirt like a flabbergasted vampire and roll away from the light, not being a morning person.

My guess is that Philip Larkin probably wasn’t either.

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