Sleep and his brother Death

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Death on a Pale Horse (?)

(Turner, Death on a Pale Horse (?): Tate Britain)

On 28 August 1967, after hearing the news of her friend Alyse Gregory’s death, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote in her diary, ‘As for me, I think sadly that my store of congenial minds is running very low. Never mind, so am I. And she is safe at least. Sleep and his brother Death have seen to that.’[1]

‘Sleep and his brother Death’. That sibling naming, though not the sentiments, recall David Jones’ In Parenthesis: ‘But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.’[2]

Allyson Booth writes of the etymological relationship between sleep and death—‘bed’ derived from the word meaning ‘to bury’, ‘cemetery’ derived from a word meaning ‘a place to sleep’, and of how the First World War literally undermined ‘a soldier’s confidence in the stability of death and a corpse’s embodiment of death’ in the churned-up ground of the Western Front as men walked and slipped and fought on the bodies of the fallen.[3]

But this is, so they say, a time of peace; and the fact is that, certainly once we reach a certain age, we are increasingly likely to witness or commemorate the death that is viewed as relief rather than tragedy. Some deaths, seeming to occur absurdly early, can still fall into that category – though some, of course, are simply an affront, a spitting in the eye of the universe and an insult to nature.

Only with the 18th century did the number of births gain over that of deaths; and this became the pattern regularly thereafter.[4] It was in 1918 that deaths overtook births again. ‘Coffins that had been stockpiled during the war, as there were no bodies to put in them, were suddenly in short supply. The Leicester railway workshops turned to coffin manufacturing and Red Cross ambulances were employed as hearses.’[5]

Self-Portrait 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait: Tate Gallery)

Sometimes, death constitutes no serious interruption to a process possessing its own rules and impetus. Stanley Spencer’s correspondence with his former wife Hilda continued after her death, beginning with a December 1950 letter and continuing until his own death nine years later. There was never any reference to her being dead and some of his letters ran to scores of pages.[6]

And the approach of death is sometimes neither feared nor unwelcome. In Patrick White’s novel The Riders in the Chariot, though Himmelfarb is near death in Mrs Godbold’s house, ‘He was as content by now as he would ever have allowed himself to be in life. Children and chairs conversed with him intimately.’[7] The importance of chairs – and tables – as solid, honest, real is a recurrent motif in White’s work.

Walter Savage Landor does a nice line in stoic acceptance of the inevitable ending:

To my ninth decad I have tottered on,
And no soft arm bends now my steps to steady;
She, who once led me where she would, is gone,
So when he calls me, Death shall find me ready.

Landor

And perhaps one more:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready depart.[8]

And Ali Smith writes of how ‘many things get forgiven in the course of a life: nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right’.[9]

That’s something to aim for: bend death a little. Tell it right.

 
References

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (London: Virago Press, 1995), 312.

[2] David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 162.

[3] Allyson Booth, Postcards From the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 59-63

[4] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century. Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French and revised by Sîan Reynolds. (London: Fontana Books 1985), 73.

[5] Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence, 1918-1920 (London: John Murray, 2009), 94.

[6] Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harvill Press, 1962), 214.

[7] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (1961; Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 432.

[8] Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt, editors, Poets on Poets (Manchester: Carcanet Press, in association with Waterstones, 1997), 231; Daniel Karlin, editor, The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 18.

[9] Ali Smith, How to be both (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014), 95.

Temperature normal – sometimes

Borogroves-toves-raths

(Sir John Tenniel, ‘Borogroves, toves, raths’)

‘Delirium would seem to be the fate of all societies which become content in secured wealth and gradually forget the conditions of labour and service upon which alone that security can be maintained.’[1]

 
Writing to Eudora Welty in 1996, William Maxwell told her that he was sending ‘a lifetime of correspondence’ to the University of Illinois Library but couldn’t bear to dispose of his letters from Charles and Susan Shattuck without rereading them.

‘Reading the letters has plunged me into such a fit of remembering, not only of them but of almost everything else, that I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing so. It made me realize that remembering can be a kind of illness, and perhaps I have it.’[2]

It can be; I may have it too. But if it’s the other way around, I’ve had a touch of that too lately, encountering people I’ve not seen for years, some of them dead, of course, but also with the tendency to turn into others or, indeed, into narrow staircases or resistant thickets or animals—among them, white rabbits, though not, to my recollection, Grace Slick.

Even though I’ve been luckier than a great many other people in the matter of general health, I’ve still had far more serious medical conditions than this in my life—‘I want you to go to hospital’, my doctor said once, years ago and, when I mumbled vaguely about dates and appointments, he said, ‘I mean now. Immediately.’ So peritonitis was happily avoided—but I can’t remember feeling so generally ill. And yes, the nights have been the worst but I’m still frustrated by the sheer physical effort involved in such major undertakings as putting on clothes or lifting a dropped spoon from the floor. (For the most part, the Librarian, visibly puzzled by the circumstances which have landed her with this most unnatural role, buckles to and tends.)

‘Space the doses evenly throughout the day.’

We all experience illness; some are never free of it; a part of ordinary life, it also offers the means of luring or urging the poet, the painter, the storyteller into strange and often arresting terrain. Illness is so various, involves its own related places, its own rituals, its own company. If we are not ill now, we have been and we will be.

The Centurion's Servant 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

Stanley Spencer, The Centurion’s Servant: Tate Gallery
© Estate of Stanley Spencer

Discussing Stanley Spencer’s The Centurion’s Servant —‘a person walking only it is lying down’, the painter remarked— Kenneth Pople notes that, in Spencer’s childhood Cookham, it was the custom to pray round the sickbed. Family recollections included an episode in which one of the older Spencer boys developed pneumonia. The illness reached a stage at which the anxiously watching women dispatched young Sydney Spencer to run to his father, then working across the Thames at Hedsor, ‘to tell him that “the crisis has come”; a message which reached Pa’s ears as ‘“Christ has come.”’[3]

Alethea Hayter quotes Coleridge—‘“I appear to myself like a sick physician, feeling the pang acutely, yet deriving a wonted pleasure from examining its process and developing its causes”’—and comments that, ‘He was speaking metaphorically, but illness, like anything else for him, could become an allegory and was interesting for that reason. Anything, however intrinsically repugnant, could be used as a symbol which would make a poem.’[4]

The warring elements of my recent nights have been the sleeplessness for hours at a time but, on the other hand, a seething and feverish onslaught of images tap-dancing on the insides of my eyelids. Lying still can, of course, be a quite exhausting business.

‘This medicine may colour your urine. This is harmless.’

Kipling-via-BBC

Edmund Wilson’s assertion that ‘[t]he theme of inescapable illness dominates the whole later Kipling’ is a reminder of just how many impressive stories this applies to, when postwar trauma is included, as it must be.[5] Yet, as J. M. S. Tompkins points out, the theme of healing predates the war, emerging in Actions and Reactions (1909), with its opening story ‘An Habitation Enforced’ and its concluding one, ‘The House Surgeon’.[6] In later stories, it is sometimes the ritual and fellowship of the masonic lodge that is the healing power: ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’, ’Fairy-Kist’, ‘The Janeites’.

‘Ah!’ Conrad’s Marlow says, ‘but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.’ (I think we can all wholeheartedly second that.) And: ‘I admit my behaviour was inexcusable, but then my temperature was seldom normal in these days.’[7]

My own temperature promises to be—and, importantly, to stay—normal, any day now. Yes. I think so. Any day now.

 

References

[1] C. F. G. Masterman, The Condition of England (London: Methuen, 1911), 34.

[2] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 441.

[3] Kenneth Pople. Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 63.

[4] Alethea Hayter, Voyage in Vain: Coleridge’s Journey to Malta in 1804 (1973; London: Robin Clark, 1993), 152.

[5] Edmund Wilson, ‘The Kipling That Nobody Read’, in Andrew Rutherford, editor, Kipling’s Mind and Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 67.

[6] J. M. S. Tompkins, The Art of Rudyard Kipling, second edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), Chapter Six, ‘Healing’.

[7] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness with The Congo Diary, edited by Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 103, 114.

 

Sleep and his brother

Archer, James, 1823-1904; La mort d'Arthur

(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.’[1]

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’.[2]

Running soldiers, vase, 6th century BC Attic (Greek) (detail)

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[3]

Richmond Lattimore has them as ‘swift messengers’[4] 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.’[5] 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.’[6]

Marguerite_Yourcenar

(Marguerite Yourcenar)

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.’[7] 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.’[8] 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.’[9] 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’.[10]

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.’[11]

So there’s that to look forward to.
References

[1] Michael Longley, ‘Sleep & Death’, Snow Water (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 42.

[2] Malcolm M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 185.

[3] Alice Oswald, Memorial (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 61.

[4] Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 348, line 671.

[5] The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Eugène Vinaver (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 873.

[6] Peter Ackroyd, Albion (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), 118.

[7] Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber, 1971), 69.

[8] Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 30.

[9] Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; Penguin Books, 2000), 26.

[10] Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (London: Harvill, 1994), 25.

[11] Letter of 14 February, 1960: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 180.