Sleep, Dreams, and Poetry

Endymion is one of the funniest heroes in Romantic poetry, mainly because he is so frequently fainting and falling asleep. He sleeps so often that I struggle to separate his waking and sleeping, a common problem for Keats that I want to talk about in this post. I have written previously about shared feeling and cognition, and dreaming is a particularly interesting case study for these topics, I think.

Let me catch you up to the ideas I’ve been toying with for my dissertation. I have come to believe that for Keats communion across time and space is enabled by acts of reading and the shared feelings reading encourages. Feelings circulate, via a text, among the bodies engaged in acts of reading (or other aesthetic experiences), and feeling is always an embodied cognitive experience. Therefore communion is realized (not just imagined) in the embodiment of transferred or circulated affect, a reactivation or revitalization of feelings in the moment of reading. From these assumptions, I begin my study of sleep and dreams.

For Endymion, sleep foils solitude. Sleep is where Cynthia (Phoebe, the moon) joins him. He feels lonely on his journey, and goes to sleep in a bower and voila, his goddess lover appears or sends him to visit another suffering being. I grossly oversimplify here, but you get the idea. The dreams act as supplementary poems, I think.

Keats is writing this poem that he believes joins people across time and space through shared feeling, and dreams do the same thing. Both experiences necessitate the lapse of the conscious actor. You must be open to the activity of the dream (including the feelings that coincide), much in the way readers suspend disbelief in order to immerse themselves in narrative action or a character’s perspective.

Even as the reader is at the mercy of the text, the dreamer’s experience is often organized by sensual perception still ongoing during sleep. We’ve all fallen asleep with the TV on and realized upon waking how we filled in the action for the audio we were hearing. At the same time, the dream is a product of the dreamer’s cognition. We are filling in the action, piecing it together from bits of memory, anxieties, desires, etc.

All of this coincides nicely with Keats’s medical training. According to his Anatomical and Physiological Notebook, volition and sensation are opposite forces, respectively internal production and externally received information. However, volition can replace sensation in its absence. Keats records, “Volition is sometimes present while sensation is destroyed. In a Gentleman who had lost sensation and yet had powers of Volition it was observed that he could grasp and hold a substance which his whole attention was directed thereto, but on his turning to a fresh occupation the substance dropped” (Lecture 10; ninth page). Thus Keats learned that in the absence of sensation, concentrated attention can perform motor tasks thought to require external stimuli. Volition can supplement perception.

I’m still not quite sure to what extent dreaming is a social experience (the point I’m hoping to make eventually in my chapter), but it acts in the same way a text does to necessitate the renunciation of the reasoning self. And it may do so on a more literal level, being unmediated by a text. There is no translation from the sign to the imagination, except in the cases of external sensations coming into the dream. And even with these, we would say the sensation is more real because it’s happening in real time and not “just imagined.” It kind of works backwards from actual to imagined; instead of the imagined becoming an actual feeling as in the sympathetic identification with another person, the actual becomes part of the narrative and the mind does not distinguish until we awake and the cogito resumes control.


For Keats, reality emerges from the dream experience. Here, I must attend to the famous Adam’s Dream passage from his November 22, 1817, letter to Benjamin Bailey. I quote at length, but trust that I’m demonstrating restraint. I’d really like to quote the whole letter. Keats writes:

The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth,’ a shadow of reality to come. And this consideration has further convinced me, – for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite speculation of mine, – that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth. Adam’s dream will do here, and seems to be a conviction that imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition.

The visionary becomes the empirical truth. Yet, Keats calls the visionary, “sensation.” Strangely he is not speaking of the phenomenological sensual perception, here. I think, instead, he is using sensation to describe “happiness on earth.” Delighting in sensation is set in opposition to hungering after truth and consecutive reasoning. Happiness and its eternal, immortal replication comes only to those who revel in the moment.


So how does all this manifest in Endymion? Keats believes that striving for “truth” rather than letting it come through immersive sensual experience is an isolating experience. Importantly, Adam’s dream is of a companion, and he awakes to find Eve. He dreams of communion, and he awakes the reality of social existence. It is not good that the man should be alone. Endymion is drowning in grief over his lost immortal lover, his dream. He didn’t awake to find his lover true. Not in the first book, at least.

Peona finds him in a restless trance while sitting around with the old men and aged priest who are talking of crossing the bar into eternity and reuniting with their friends, family, and fellow huntsmen in immortality.  Peona takes him away to her favorite bower on a little island. He falls into a sleep, which heals and “renovates” his mind:

O magic sleep! O comfortable bird

That broodest o’er the troubled sea of the mind

Till it is hush’d and smooth! O unconfin’d

Restraint! imprisoned liberty! great key

To golden palaces, strange minstrelsy,

Fountains grotesque, new trees, bespangled caves,

Echoing grottos, full of tumbling waves

And moonlight; aye, to all the mazy world

Of silvery enchantment!–who, upfurl’d

Beneath thy drowsy wing a triple hour,

But renovates and lives?–Thus, in the bower,

Endymion was calm’d to life again.

Opening his eyelids with a healthier brain…

(I. 453-466)

When he awakes to talk with Peona, she plays a “mournful strange” lay, which induces another sort of trancelike intoxication in Endymion. She stops playing and asks about his deeper knowledge of things immortal that “weigh down” his nature. He explains that he has had a dream. A vision of mounting to the stars upon wings, seeing them disappear and the moon rise from the horizon. His “dazzled soul/ Commingling with her argent spheres,” and when she disappears, he seeks “to commune” again with the stars, he has a vision of the deities, he describes Phoebe’s beauty (he doesn’t use her name; she is still just the moon, here), she takes his hand and they fly, he is so overcome that he nearly faints a couple time, and goes into a madness, kissing her arms and face, she lays him down in another bower/nest. From here he falls into a deeper sleep, a “stupid sleep.”

I must point out the parallel between the dream experience and what he undergoes while in his trance and asleep. Endymion’s dreamed journey mirrors the actual goings on of the scene. His vision of the deities from Mt. Olympus suggests the old men talking of eternity. And being escorted to a bower by Peona, the deeper sleep in the bower. Though he doesn’t awake to find his dream lover true, his dream most certainly takes cues from the external goings on his body perceives while asleep.

Interesting as this is, I want to push forward to show the distinction between a life of sensations and hungering after truth Keats draws in his letter to Bailey translated into narrative. Peona listens to her brother’s lament over his lost chance at transcendence, and she chastises him and makes fun of his sentimentalism. Instead of sighing, he should, “Be rather in the trumpet’s mouth, –anon/Among the winds at large–that all may hearken!” (I. 737-738). Rather than floundering in his emotions, he should be taking action. He should be more ambitious, a leader to whom all listen. She says of dreaming:

‘–would I so tease

My pleasant days, because I could not mount

Into those regions? The Morphean fount

Of that fine element that visions, dreams

And fitful whims of sleep are made of, streams

Into its airy channels with so subtle,

So thin a breathing, not the spider’s shuttle,

Circled a million times within the space

Of a swallow’s nest-door, could delay a trace,

A tinting of  its quality: how light

Must dreams themselves be; seeing they’re more slight

Than the mere nothing that engenders them!

Then wherefore sully the entrusted gem

Of high and noble life with thoughts so sick?

Why pierce high-fronted honour to the quick

For nothing but a dream?’ (I. 745-760)

And to this he responds:

‘No, no, I’m sure,

My restless spirit never could endure

To brood so long upon one luxury,

Unless it did though fearfully, espy

A hope beyond the shadow of a dream.

My sayings will the less obscured seem,

When I have told thee how my waking sight

Has made me scruple whether that same night

Was pass’d in dreaming.’ (I. 854-861)

Peona missed the point. Dreams extend beyond the moments of sleep, but not in the way she thinks, as a lingering melancholy, a pointless pining after phantoms. Instead, the dreams point to a future reality, a ‘hope beyond the shadow of a dream,” that obscures the imagined and the lived. Does Endymion wake or sleep? And does it matter when you wake to find your dream true?

Dreams are these strange spaces where abandoning the reasoning self allows a co-creation of narrative. Volition and sensation blend and confuse self and environment, my imagination and my perception, me and my neighbor. For Keats, the cooperative composition is more true than what can be gathered in trumpet calls and consecutive reasoning.