Tag Archives: escape

“Sonnet to Sleep” by John Keats

Portrait of John Keats by Joseph Severn

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the Amen ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like the mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

This poem is about the longing to escape physical and emotional suffering. Keats expresses deep anguish which appears to be a combination of bodily pain accompanied by thoughts and memories which torment him. As he lies awake in bed, he longs for the forgetfulness of sleep, but sleep eludes him.

Sleep is a common metaphor for death, and Keats uses certain words associated with death to convey the sense that he is weary of living and longs to pass from mortal existence. The words “embalmer” in the opening line and “casket” in the closing line actually serve as a way of entombing the entire poem. Also, the fact that the poem is set at midnight implies that he is at a symbolic threshold, ready to move on to the next plane of existence.

There is one last thing I feel is worth noting. In lines 7 and 8, there is a reference to the use of poppy, which in Keats’ time would be opium. It appears that Keats has turned to narcotics as a way to ease his physical and spiritual pain. But in spite of his self-anesthetizing, he is still unable to numb the darkness, “burrowing like the mole” into the deepest regions of his psyche.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 1: On the Addictive Power of Books

Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix

I recently decided to read Cervantes’ famous book, Don Quixote, mainly because I am planning a trip to Spain and figured I should read it before I visit. Also, it’s been on my reading list for a long time, but I’ve put it off, mainly due to the length. But I figured, now is a good time to read it. Since it is long and probably would not work as a single blog post, I decided to do a series of posts as I work my way through the text. For my first post, I wanted to write about the addictive power of books.

Cervantes begins the book by explaining that the protagonist is a person who is addicted to books, which is something I can relate to. Someone may ask: Can you really become addicted to books? I’d say yes. Addiction is the constant search for something that changes how you feel inside and ultimately serves as an escape from reality.

As is often the case with addiction, the obsession and constant immersion in the vehicle of escape causes one to lose touch with reality, which happens to the protagonist in this book.

In short, he became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits. His fancy grew full of what he used to read about in his books, enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, agonies, and all sorts of impossible nonsense; and it so possessed his mind that the whole fabric of invention and fancy he read of was true, that to him no history in the world had more reality in it.

(p. 4)

As the barriers between reality and fantasy crumble, the protagonist decides to live the life described in the books he reads. He takes on the persona of Don Quixote and allows the literary realm of chivalry to become his dominant paradigm in real life.

In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honour as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armour and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practices of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame.

(p. 5)

While this may seem extreme, there is a universal truth here that needs addressing. As thinking, sentient beings, we are the sum product of our experiences, and reading is an experience that directly impacts who we are as individuals. This leads to the question: Is it better to focus your reading on a single topic or idea, or should one read broadly and diversely? It appears that Cervantes is asserting that one should read broadly, that reading only one type of book will instill a myopic view of life and ultimately become a singular obsession.

As is often the case with addiction, family and friends will often attempt an intervention to help the suffering addict. This happens to Don Quixote. People close to him try to intervene by ridding Don Quixote of his books, essentially, trying to cure the addiction by taking away the drug.

But I take all the blame upon myself for never having told your worships of my uncle’s vagaries, that you might put a stop to them before things had come to pass, and burn these accursed books—for he has a great number—that richly deserve to be burned like heretics.

(p. 33)

So, at this point, I want to conclude by saying: “Hi. My name is Jeff, and I’m a book addict.” And yes, like Don Quixote, I often imagine myself in the realm of the books I read. I love losing myself in the world of imagination. But I think it’s a healthy addiction, as long as you maintain a firm foot in reality and read broadly. So to all my book-addict friends, go out and read something different and new.

Thanks for stopping by, and look for another post about Don Quixote soon.

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