(James Archer, La mort d’Arthur: Manchester Art Gallery)
Commanded by ‘Zeus the cloud-gatherer’, Apollo ‘did exactly as he was told’.
He carried Sarpedon out of the line of fire,
Washed him properly in a stream, in running water,
And rubbed supernatural preservative over him
And wrapped him up in imperishable fabrics
And handed him over to the speedy chaperons,
Sleep and his twin brother Death, who brought him
In no time at all to Lycia’s abundant farmland.’
Michael Longley is rendering here a part of Homer’s Book XVI of the Iliad. What Zeus says to his son Apollo about another of his sons, Sarpedon, almost exactly repeats what Zeus’s wife Hera has earlier said to her husband when he expressed his wish to rescue Sarpedon from the murderous attention of Patroclus. Hera, reasonably enough, pointed out that, were he to save Sarpedon from his battlefield death, then other gods and goddesses might feel a little aggrieved, since many ‘sons of the immortals’ were engaged in the fight. Essentially, she says, while Zeus has the power to reprieve Sarpedon, to do so ‘would upset the balance of the world’.
Sleep and death. With characteristic elegance, Alice Oswald writes:
Sarpedon the son of Zeus
Came to this unseen ungrowing ground
Came from his cornfields from his leafy river
From his kingdom of paths and apple groves
And was killed by a spear
Then for a long time he lay crumpled as linen
Until two soft-voiced servants Sleep and Death
Carried him home again
Richmond Lattimore has them as ‘swift messengers’ but I rather like that explicit characterisation of them as servants rather than masters. Given the acceptance of fate and its workings, what could be more natural than sleep or, indeed, death?
In Finland, I gather, 27th July is Sleepy Head Day, when the last person sleeping in the house tends to be doused with water. The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and is supposedly related to the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid in a cave to escape religious persecution and woke centuries later. There are long sleeps, absurdly long sleeps—and mythical sleeps. Legend insists that King Arthur and his knights are not dead but only sleeping until they are needed again. Malory wrote: ‘Yet som men say in many p[art]ys of Inglonde that kynge Arthur ys nat dede but h[ad] by the wyll of oure Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse.’ Tracing the ways in which Arthur’s memory was kept alive, through oral tradition, folk tales and ballads, to flourish in Victorian Britain, in Morris, Swinburne and most evidently in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Peter Ackroyd suggests that this is ‘the true significance of Arthur: by not dying, by being perpetually reborn, he represents the ideas of the English imagination.’
Some are deprived of the sleep they desire: Alethea Hayter writes of the opium addict that: ‘He is unable to sleep, and sometimes seems to be waiting for someone who never comes.’ For others, sleep is not wanted at all. The narrator of Michael Ondaatje’s novel remarks that ‘Sleep is a prison for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night, up before sunrise surrounded the ship.’ Sleep has its risks and dangers, its shifting borders. ‘But what interests me here’, Marguerite Yourcenar has her emperor Hadrian say, ‘is the specific mystery of sleep partaken of for itself alone, the inevitable plunge risked each night by the naked man, solitary and unarmed, into an ocean where everything changes, the colors, the densities, and even the rhythm of breathing, and where we meet the dead.’ And the Old Gypsy Woman says to the narrator of Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem, ‘Listen, my dear, this can’t go on, you can’t live in two worlds at once, in the world of reality and the world of dreams, that kind of thing leads to hallucinations, you’re like a sleepwalker walking with your arms outstretched, and everything you touch becomes part of your dream’.
One of my favourite sleeping anecdotes occurs in a Sylvia Townsend Warner letter to her friend George Plank. ‘I will sit down to tell you about two very old & distant cousins of mine, brother & sister, who live together. She is in her nineties: he is a trifle younger. They were sitting together, he reading, she knitting. Presently she wanted something, and crossed the room to get it. She tripped, & fell on her back. So she presently said: Charlie, I’ve fallen & I can’t get up. He put down his book, turned his head, looked at her, and fell asleep.’
So there’s that to look forward to.
 Michael Longley, ‘Sleep & Death’, Snow Water (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 42.
 Malcolm M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 185.
 Alice Oswald, Memorial (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 61.
 Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 348, line 671.
 The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Eugène Vinaver (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 873.
 Peter Ackroyd, Albion (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), 118.
 Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber, 1971), 69.
 Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 30.
 Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; Penguin Books, 2000), 26.
 Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (London: Harvill, 1994), 25.
 Letter of 14 February, 1960: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 180.