John Keats was a part of the British Romantic literary tradition. During his lifetime Keats did not associate himself with other major romantic poets and stayed away from them. He studied to become a surgeon but left it later, to pursue his passion of writing. He had no formal training in literary education. Leigh Hunt published a brief notice of ‘Young Poets’ in ‘The Examiner’ and Keats was mentioned in that. It was a new school of thought that would revive nature and ‘put a spirit of youth in everything’. It was around this time that Keats determined to devote all his time to poetry giving medicine.
‘To Sleep’ is a poem about the longing of the poet to escape from physical suffering and emotional anguish. He invokes sleep to come and lead him out his sufferings. Sleep is an embalmer and with soft and kind fingers he requests sleep to close his gloomy eyes. He wants to be shaded from the daylight and fade into ‘forgetfulness divine’. Again he addresses sleep as ‘soothest sleep’ and requests sleep to close his eyes and his ‘willing eyes’ at that. In the next two lines he wants sleep to take him into her embrace before death takes him.
Daytime is all about thoughts, words and actions which will be become memories once they are executed. He is asking sleep to save him from the woes of the daytime. Some of them can raise the feeling of guilt and this can be torturous. Conscience will gnaw like a mole and when it dark the strength of the conscience increases. The only way to escape this ‘burrowing’ is to fall asleep. Sleep has that miraculous effect of erasing all memories or thoughts. He is requesting sleep to turn on its keys and ‘seal the hushed casket of his soul’.
This poem ‘To Sleep’ is a sonnet about sleep and death as well. This sonnet is basically a Shakespearean sonnet with a few changes. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDBCEEFEF. The octave emphasises on the soothing and embalming quality of sleep. The sestet disrupts this idea because he mentions that his conscience is burrowing like a mole. The delicious drowsiness and the disruption work hard to change the Shakespearean form. It also deviates in the final couplet. The tone of the poem is gentle and hushed, apt for a sonnet on sleep. Enjambment, where a thought begun continues to the next line, is seen in the lines
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn,
Or wait the Amen ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Sleep is personified and Keats wants her to come and take him over so that he could forget his woes and guilt. But he also compares sleep to death and this is seen in the use of the word of ‘casket’. His poem is a hymn as he compared sleep to divinity. In this poem Keats is not looking at some creative reverie or an appeal for inspiration, it is a desire for some calm and peace. Andrew Motion, the English poet writes, ‘[The poem] hankers after a calm nowhere, accepting that the pains of “curious conscience” cannot be deferred indefinitely.’