The Pains of Sleep: Coleridge on Prayer

SamuelTaylorColeridgeToday’s poem from Word in the Wilderness is The Pains of Sleep by ST Coleridge. I am currently working on a book on coleridge for Hodder and Soughton and becoming ever more deeply aware of how central prayer is to Coleridge’s life but how little that has been noticed by his many biographers and commentators. Here is his poem the pains of sleep, a recording of my reading of it, and my commentary on it from The Word in the Wilderness. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button:

The Pains of Sleep   S. T. Coleridge

 

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,

It hath not been my use to pray

With moving lips or bended knees;

But silently, by slow degrees,

My spirit I to Love compose,

In humble trust mine eye-lids close,

With reverential resignation

No wish conceived, no thought exprest,

Only a sense of supplication;

A sense o’er all my soul imprest

That I am weak, yet not unblest,

Since in me, round me, every where

Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

 

But yester-night I prayed aloud

In anguish and in agony,

Up-starting from the fiendish crowd

Of .shapes and thoughts that tortured me:

A lurid light, a trampling throng,

Sense of intolerable wrong,

And whom I scorned, those only strong!

Thirst of revenge, the powerless will

Still baffled, and yet burning still!

Desire with loathing strangely mixed

On wild or hateful objects fixed.

Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!

And shame and terror over all!

Deeds to be hid which were not hid,

Which all confused I could not know

Whether I suffered, or I did:

For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,

My own or others still the same

Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

 

So two nights passed: the night’s dismay

Saddened and stunned the coming day.

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me

Distemper’s worst calamity.

The third night, when my own loud scream

Had waked me from the fiendish dream,

O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,

I wept as I had been a child;

And having thus by tears subdued

My anguish to a milder mood,

Such punishments, I said, were due

To natures deepliest stained with sin,

For aye entempesting anew

The unfathomable hell within,

The horror of their deeds to view,

To know and loathe, yet wish and do!

Such griefs with such men well agree,

But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?

To be loved is all I need,

And whom I love, I love indeed.

 

Kelly Belmonte gave us the image in ‘How I talk to God’ of weeping and wakefulness:

 

Fetal position

under flannel sheets, weeping

How I talk to God.

 

Today I want to pursue that a little further and offer you a poem that opens up questions about patterns and specifics of prayer and also about the relation between the praying adult and the inner child (also hinted at in Belmonte’s poem). It is well-known that Coleridge struggled throughout his adult life with an opium addiction, originally acquired when he was being treated for agonizing pains in the knee at a time when little was known about the long term addictive qualities of the opium-based cure-alls that were so readily, widely and legally available in his day. Popular accounts have sometimes suggested that somehow the opium was all part of the romantic inspiration, but as Molly Lefebure has comprehensively demonstrated in her book Samuel Taylor Coleridge; a Bondage of Opium, nothing could be further from the case. Coleridge’s brilliant achievements in writing were a fruit of heroic resistance to a drug which he knew was destroying his will and polluting the clear springs of his inspiration. One of the consequences both of the addiction and of his many and prolonged attempts to be free of it, facing dreadful withdrawal symptoms, was draining bouts of insomnia and dreadful nightmares. Coleridge confronts these, and their relation to prayer in the dark and searingly honest poem ‘The Pains of Sleep’.

He starts off with an account of his ‘bedtime prayers’ not as formulaic repetition or particular intercession, but as a kind of composed and open frame of mind, ‘reverential resignation’ not an actual prayer but rather ‘a sense of supplication’ and running through it all a kind of diffused awareness that:

 

in me, round me, every where

Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

 

This all sounds well and good and suggests perhaps the mature openness of someone who feels they may have grown beyond the childish lisping of their earlier forms of bedtime prayer, when they had prayed ‘with moving lips and bended knees’. But at this point the poem suddenly turns and we realize that Coleridge’s purpose is not to promote this vague and hazy spirituality but to reveal its utter inadequacy!

In the agonizing confession that follows he makes it clear that in confronting his demons and coming to the root of his (and our) wretchedness and fallenness, he needs to pray ‘aloud, in anguish and in agony’. Indeed he goes on later in the poem to reconnect with the inner child who had stopped praying in the old way and says

 

I wept as I had been a child;

 

I have sometimes wondered, reading this poem, whether the strong rhythm and close rhyme of these four-stress lines is not a deliberate echo, a summoning, of the strongly rhymed traditional child’s prayer, which was already well known by the late eighteenth century:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord My soul to keep,

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord My soul to take.

 

But if Coleridge needs to summon again, the almost incantatory power of a child’s remembered prayer, he does so because he must confront an adult’s agony. One of the reasons why Coleridge can speak very directly to our own age is that he lived in and confronted addiction, and its attendant self-loathing, which seems to be one of the deepest, if most hidden, curses of our own age. In an age which should theoretically offer us greater possibilities of freedom than in any previous generation, we have in fact used that freedom to devise our own trammels and cages, and our entire culture of consumption seems designed at once to promote and conceal addictive and obsessive patterns of behavior. The specifics of the addictions may have changed since Coleridge’s time, but he fearlessly enumerates their real psychological and spiritual consequences:

 

The powerless will

Still baffled, and yet burning still!

Desire with loathing strangely mixed

On wild or hateful objects fixed …

All seemed guilt, remorse or woe,

My own or others still the same

Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

 

Even in the midst of this experience of chaos and depression Coleridge can see, though he cannot, of his own power attain, what is needful, and he concludes this confessional cry in the night with a gesture towards love:

 

To be loved is all I need,

And whom I love, I love indeed.

 

In the end, like his own Ancient Mariner, Coleridge did recover that capacity to give and receive love, and indeed returned to a full, and profoundly held faith in Christ as the one, the only one, who could come down into the midst of his pain and set him free. He wrote some brilliant theology from the standpoint of that recovered faith, but it seems to me that it is his notes along the way, his frank cries of despair and longing, that can most help his fellow pilgrims now.

 

6 Comments

Filed under christianity, literature, Poems

6 responses to “The Pains of Sleep: Coleridge on Prayer

  1. What a moving piece and your thoughts, Malcolm, were so helpful brining out the depth and personal application of this poem. I am struck deeply by the journey and message of Coleridge is conveying. I so look forward to the Coleridge book your working on. We need to be introduced to more heroes from our family past, especially ones so open and honest about “our” struggles as well as victories.

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Kirk. Yes I make that point in my book the church needs the witness of those who struggle as nub if not more than the ones who seem to glide easily through life

  2. Dianne Harris

    Malcolm, thanks so much for sharing this and all your other posts. It’s so apt for me at the moment. I’m having chemotherapy and often up in the wee small hours praying, agonising, but always aware of God’s presence in the midst of it all. Bless you, Dianne

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Very interesting, reminding us of the need for relationships with a personal God, and not merely “Eternal strength and wisdom” or any abstractions.

  4. Richard King

    How profound and thought provoking. The human state so needs a centre in Christ even in trials.
    Richard King

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