‘Sleep with us’ exhorts an unconventional inn sign not far from here, which students have remarked upon. Sleep seems to be a recurrent topic in their conversation: it has become an issue for too many of them, and some of the theories in a book recently published* may help to explain why. Electronic devices have a lot to answer for.

Sleep is important in the minds of pupils: some are apprehensive about it, while others seem to love it; and it is of course a recurrent topos in literature.

Edward Young:
‘Tired Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep!’
        Night Thoughts, line 1

‘Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more,
Macbeth does murder sleep’—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast…’
        Macbeth, Act II Scene 2
(A ravelled sleave, by the way, is a filament of silk that has frayed from its thread: Shakespeare, observant as usual, had presumably watched a seamstress skilfully ‘knitting’ them back into the fabric and making the surface of the garment smooth again.)

Horace, on how sleep visits the poor man but forsakes the rich and powerful:
‘destrictus ensis cui super inpia
cervice pendet, non Siculae dapes
dulcem elaborabunt saporem,
non avium citharaeque cantus

somnum reducent: somnus agrestium
lenis virorum non humilis domos
fastidit umbrosamque ripam,
non Zephyris agitata Tempe.
        Odes 3:1

Hypnos appears as a character in Iliad 14, when Hera, fond of summoning lesser immortals to assist with her schemes, finds him on the island of Lemnos and bribes him to send Zeus to sleep, so that Poseidon, unhindered, can help the Greeks in battle; and when he has done so, Hypnos goes to Poseidon to give him the all-clear.

Somnus is the god who puts Palinurus to sleep on a calm night in the Tyrrhenian Sea, to make him fall from his bench on Aeneas’s flagship and be drowned.

He is summoned by Juno, this time to give a dream to Alcyone, in Metamorphoses Book 11. Here Ovid, in his most felicitous mode, describes the Cave of Sleep (lines 592-612), where
ante fores antri fecunda papavera florent
innumeraeque herbae, quarum de lacte soporem
Nox legit et spargit per opacas umida terras.

In an appendix to his Roman Vergil, W. F. Jackson Knight suggests that the poet, like Ennius before him and Keats after him, may have used sleep as an enabler of his poetry: reading passages from his predecessors and mentors the night before, and finding that in the morning they had blended and produced something new: the inspiration that both Ennius and Keats refer to.

Of interest:

  • Keats, Sleep and Poetry.
  • Ennius, Fragmenta, passim


*Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, Penguin 2018



A Cambridge tutor said recently that it was becoming harder to find students good enough for the Natural Sciences course: imagination, he added, was a necessary quality.

First paragraph of the OED entry for imagination:
‘The power or capacity to form internal images or ideas of objects and situations not actually present to the senses, including remembered objects and situations, and those constructed by mentally combining or projecting images of previously experienced qualities, objects, and situations. Also (esp. in modern philosophy): the power or capacity by which the mind integrates sensory data in the process of perception.’

Mary Warnock explains that in Immanuel Kant’s system, the imagination lies half way between the intellectual part of our knowledge and the sensory part:
‘Without imagination, we could never apply concepts to sense experience. Whereas a wholly sensory life would be without any regularity or organisation, a purely intellectual life would be without any real content… the two elements are not automatically joined to each other in their functions. They need a further element to join them. The joining element is the imagination… ’  Mary Warnock, Imagination, University of California Press, p.30

It seems that imagination in the usage defined here, and as used by the Cambridge don, is about associating, reflecting and connecting.

The student in the earlier post* who felt lucky to have escaped the boredom and embarrassment of ‘outstanding lessons’ at his previous school, said that doing History had been especially discouraging. It was like being hustled down a long corridor, at the end of which was a door marked GCSE. On either side were doors leading out to enticing landscapes, which he was not allowed to open. He had the impression that the teacher was working to a rigid scheme.

It is by discursive teaching especially that the imagination is cultivated: lessons where content (and dialogue) takes precedence over presentation. But such teaching is hardly possible with rigid ‘schemes of work’.

Not many classicists are unwise enough to be in thrall to over-prescriptive schemes; but there are stories about heads of department who have become obsessed by them, with dire results.