Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

These are the closing lines of Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale. On another occasion, I would like to explore this exquisite, thoughtful poem. It is these two lines which hold my attention now. I like the way they focus my attention on the moment of waking – the strange, in-between place where mists of dream linger and the real world hasn’t quite swum into focus yet. Although Keats’s awakening is from a bout of intense reflection, he compares it to the end of sleep – something we all recognise – to signal his sense of coming back to reality. Waking up can be disconcerting: for me, it depends what I have on my mind or how tired I am. For Thomas Hardy’s heroine, Bathsheba, in Far from the Madding Crowd, waking is, at one point, a long pause for her own troubled existence. Bathsheba is recently married to Frank Troy, a man she loves passionately. She realises, too late, that the marriage was a mistake. A former servant of Bathsheba’s, Fanny Robbins, has died and her body brought to Bathsheba’s house. Filled with terrible suspicion, Bathsheba has prised the lid off the coffin to reveal Fanny and her new-born child. In a gothic, candle-lit scene, Frank returns late at night, kisses Fanny’s corpse with tenderness and declares Fanny is his true wife – Bathsheba is nothing to him. Driven beyond endurance, Bathsheba runs out into the night. She collapses under an oak tree, pulls some foliage around her and stays there till morning. When she wakes, Bathsheba listens to the sounds around her, from which she feels entirely separate. It is as if her focus on a detailed observation of nature absolves her, momentarily, from having to think about herself. It is only after she has processed the fact that she has been sleeping at the edge of a marsh – a treacherous hollow filled with weird and distorted fungi – that she makes a move.

Extract from chapter 44 Far from the Madding Crowd

BATHSHEBA went along the dark road, neither knowing nor caring about the direction or issue of her flight. The first time that she definitely noticed her position was when she reached a gate leading into a thicket over-hung by some large oak and beech trees. On looking into the place, it occurred to her that she had seen it by daylight on some previous occasion, and that what appeared like an impassable thicket was in reality a brake of fern now withering fast. She could think of nothing better to do with her palpitating self than to go in here and hide; and entering, she lighted on a spot sheltered from the damp fog by a reclining trunk, where she sank down upon a tangled couch of fronds and stems. She mechanically pulled some armfuls round her to keep off the breezes, and closed her eyes.

Whether she slept or not that night Bathsheba was not clearly aware. But it was with a freshened existence and a cooler brain that, a long time afterwards, she became conscious of some interesting proceedings which were going on in the trees above her head and around.

A coarse-throated chatter was the first sound.

It was a sparrow just waking.

Next: “Chee-weeze-weeze-weeze!” from another retreat.

It was a finch.

Third: “Tink-tink-tink-tink-a-chink!” from the hedge.

It was a robin.

“Chuck-chuck-chuck!” overhead.

A squirrel.

Then, from the road, “With my ra-ta-ta, and my rum-tum-tum!”

It was a ploughboy. Presently he came opposite, and she believed from his voice that he was one of the boys on her own farm. He was followed by a shambling tramp of heavy feet, and looking through the ferns Bathsheba could just discern in the wan light of daybreak a team of her own horses. They stopped to drink at a pond on the other side of the way. She watched them flouncing into the pool, drinking, tossing up their heads, drinking again, the water dribbling from their lips in silver threads. There was another flounce, and they came out of the pond, and turned back again towards the farm.

She looked further around. Day was just dawning, and beside its cool air and colours her heated actions and resolves of the night stood out in lurid contrast. She perceived that in her lap, and clinging to her hair, were red and yellow leaves which had come down from the tree and settled silently upon her during her partial sleep. Bathsheba shook her dress to get rid of them, when multitudes of the same family lying round about her rose and fluttered away in the breeze thus created, “like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.”

There was an opening towards the east, and the glow from the as yet unrisen sun attracted her eyes thither. From her feet, and between the beautiful yellowing ferns with their feathery arms, the ground sloped downwards to a hollow, in which was a species of swamp, dotted with fungi. A morning mist hung over it now — a fulsome yet magnificent silvery veil, full of light from the sun, yet semi-opaque — the hedge behind it being in some measure hidden by its hazy luminousness. Up the sides of this depression grew sheaves of the common rush, and here and there a peculiar species of flag, the blades of which glistened in the emerging sun, like scythes. But the general aspect of the swamp was malignant. From its moist and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under the earth. The fungi grew in all manner of positions from rotting leaves and tree stumps, some exhibiting to her listless gaze their clammy tops, others their oozing gills. Some were marked with great splotches, red as arterial blood, others were saffron yellow, and others tall and attenuated, with stems like macaroni. Some were leathery and of richest browns. The hollow seemed a nursery of pestilences small and great, in the immediate neighbourhood of comfort and health, and Bathsheba arose with a tremor at the thought of having passed the night on the brink of so dismal a place.

Thomas Hardy

The American poet, Theodore Roethke, uses sleeping and waking as a metaphor. He may be conjuring aspects of his own circumstances; it may be a way of reflecting on human existence. The use of repetition inherent in this type of poem – a villanelle – produces a tight, entwined structure. I find it quite claustrophobic – as though the poet keeps turning my head to look into his words again. I’d be interested to know what you think.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Theodore Roethke

As ever, I’d be delighted if you wanted to share your reactions to either text via a comment. Do you know of other literary awakenings which are worthy of note?


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Filed under Bitesize Read, Poem of the Week, Uncategorized

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