The Hours of Sleep


Ford Maddox Brown, Parisina’s Sleep (Study for Head of Parisina), 1842

by Alice Meynell

There are hours claimed by Sleep, but refused to him. None the less are they his by some state within the mind, which answers rhythmically and punctually to that claim. Awake and at work, without drowsiness, without languor, and without gloom, the night mind of man is yet not his day mind; he has night-powers of feeling which are at their highest in dreams, but are night’s as well as sleep’s. The powers of the mind in dreams, which are inexplicable, are not altogether baffled because the mind is awake; it is the hour of their return as it is the hour of a tide’s, and they do return.

In sleep they have their free way. Night then has nothing to hamper her influence, and she draws the emotion, the senses, and the nerves of the sleeper. She urges him upon those extremities of anger and love, contempt and terror to which not only can no event of the real day persuade him, but for which, awake, he has perhaps not even the capacity. This increase of capacity, which is the dream’s, is punctual to the night, even though sleep and the dream be kept at arm’s length.

The child, not asleep, but passing through the hours of sleep and their dominions, knows that the mood of night will have its hour; he puts off his troubled heart, and will answer it another time, in the other state, by day. “I shall be able to bear this when I am grown up” is not oftener in a young child’s mind than “I shall endure to think of it in the day-time.” By this he confesses the double habit and double experience, not to be interchanged, and communicating together only by memory and hope.

Perhaps it will be found that to work all by day or all by night is to miss something of the powers of a complex mind. One might imagine the rhythmic experience of a poet, subject, like a child, to the time, and tempering the extremities of either state by messages of remembrance and expectancy.

Never to have had a brilliant dream, and never to have had any delirium, would be to live too much in the day; and hardly less would be the loss of him who had not exercised his waking thought under the influence of the hours claimed by dreams. And as to choosing between day and night, or guessing whether the state of day or dark is the truer and the more natural, he would be rash who should make too sure.

In order to live the life of night, a watcher must not wake too much. That is, he should not alter so greatly the character of night as to lose the solitude, the visible darkness, or the quietude. The hours of sleep are too much altered when they are filled by lights and crowds; and Nature is cheated so, and evaded, and her rhythm broken, as when the larks caged in populous streets make ineffectual springs and sing daybreak songs when the London gas is lighted. Nature is easily deceived; and the muse, like the lark, may be set all astray as to the hour. You may spend the peculiar hours of sleep amid so much noise and among so many people that you shall not be aware of them; you may thus merely force and prolong the day. But to do so is not to live well both lives; it is not to yield to the daily and nightly rise and fall and to be cradled in the swing of change.

There surely never was a poet but was now and then rocked in such a cradle of alternate hours. “It cannot be,” says Herbert, “that I am he on whom Thy tempests fell all night.”

It is in the hours of sleep that the mind, by some divine paradox, has the extremest sense of light. Almost the most shining lines in English poetry—lines that cast sunrise shadows—are those of Blake, written confessedly from the side of night, the side of sorrow and dreams, and those dreams the dreams of little chimney-sweepers; all is as dark as he can make it with the “bags of soot”; but the boy’s dream of the green plain and the river is too bright for day. So, indeed, is another brightness of Blake’s, which is also, in his poem, a child’s dream, and was certainly conceived by him in the hours of sleep, in which he woke to write the Songs of Innocence:—

O what land is the land of dreams?
What are its mountains, and what are its streams?
O father, I saw my mother there,
Among the lilies by waters fair.
Among the lambs clothéd in white,
She walk’d with her Thomas in sweet delight.

To none but the hours claimed and inspired by sleep, held awake by sufferance of sleep, belongs such a vision.

Corot also took the brilliant opportunity of the hours of sleep. In some landscapes of his early manner he has the very light of dreams, and it was surely because he went abroad at the time when sleep and dreams claimed his eyes that he was able to see so spiritual an illumination. Summer is precious for a painter, chiefly because in summer so many of the hours of sleep are also hours of light. He carries the mood of man’s night out into the sunshine—Corot did so—and lives the life of night, in all its genius, in the presence of a risen sun. In the only time when the heart can dream of light, in the night of visions, with the rhythmic power of night at its dark noon in his mind, his eyes see the soaring of the actual sun.

He himself has not yet passed at that hour into the life of day. To that life belongs many another kind of work, and a sense of other kinds of beauty; but the summer daybreak was seen by Corot with the extreme perception of the life of night. Here, at last, is the explanation of all the memories of dreams recalled by these visionary paintings, done in earlier years than were those, better known, that are the Corots of all the world. Every man who knows what it is to dream of landscape meets with one of these works of Corot’s first manner with a cry, not of welcome only, but of recognition. Here is morning perceived by the spirit of the hours of sleep.

Essay first published 1898. Via

About the Author

Alice Meynell (22 September 1847 – 27 November 1922) was an English poet, writer, critic and suffragist.