The Sleeper
A Poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Date of Publication
Rhyme Scheme
Meter
Apostrophe and Alliteration
Summary and Theme
Text With Explanations
Author Information
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Notes and Annotation by Michael J. Cummings..© 2006 
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Type of Work and Date of Publication

"The Sleeper" is a lyric poem first published in 1831, then revised and published again in 1836 and 1845. The last version was published in the Broadway Journal of May 1845.  
 
 
Rhyme Scheme 

The "The Sleeper" is written in couplets and triplets. A couplet has two successive rhyming lines, and a triplet has three successive rhyming lines. The first six lines contain the following three couplets:  

    At midnight, in the month of June, 
    I stand beneath the mystic moon. 
    An opiate vapor, dewy, dim, 
    Exhales from out her golden rim, 
    And, softly dripping, drop by drop, 
    Upon the quiet mountain top   
By contrast, the first five lines of the fourth stanza begin with a triplet followed by a couplet:
    My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep, 
    As it is lasting, so be deep! 
    Soft may the worms about her creep! 
    Far in the forest, dim and old, 
    For her may some tall vault unfold 
Meter

"The Sleeper" is written mostly in iambic tetrameter. In this format, a line has four pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables, for a total of eight syllables. The term tetrameter (from the Greek tetra, meaning four, and metron, meaning measure) indicates that a line has four syllabic units. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the metric pattern: 

    ....1.............2.................3..............4 
    At MID | night, IN | the MONTH | of JUNE, 

    ....1.............2.................3...............4 
    I STAND | beNEATH | the MYS | tic MOON. 

Use of Apostrophe

The narrator addresses Irene in Stanza 2, as if she can hear what he is saying. Addressing a person or thing in such a way, without expecting an answer, is a figure of speech called apostrophe. An apostrophe frequently begins with Oh or O, as in the opening two lines of Stanza 2: Oh, lady bright! can it be right / This window open to the night? In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Mark Antony also addresses a dead body (that of Caesar), saying, "O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth." In the New Testament of the Bible, St. Paul addresses death in his first epistle to the Corinthians (Chapter 15, Verses 54 and 55): O, death, where is thy sting? O, grave, where is thy victory? 

Alliteration 

Alliteration plays an important role in "The Sleeper," as in other poems of Poe, in that it helps to maintain rhythm and musicality. Note, for example, that the first two lines of the poem emphasize the m sound.  

    At midnight, in the month of June, 
    I stand beneath the mystic moon. 
Another example of alliteration is the following lines in the fourth stanza:
    Far in the forest, dim and old,  
    For her may some tall vault unfold —  
    Some vault that oft hath flung its black  
    And wingèd panels fluttering back
Atmosphere and Theme

The atmosphere of the poem is dreamlike, otherworldly. Words such as mystic, opiate, drowsily, slumber, wizard, ghosts, and shadows reinforce the mood. The theme is transcendental love–that is, love for a woman so powerful that it extends into the afterlife in its concern for the well-being of the deceased woman's soul. "The Sleeper" is one of many Poe poems focusing on beautiful women who have died.   

Author Information 

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.  

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The Sleeper
By Edgar Allan Poe
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Text of the Poem Summaries and Notes
1   

At midnight, in the month of June, 
I stand beneath the mystic moon. 
An opiate vapor, dewy, dim,  
Exhales from out her golden rim, 
And, softly dripping, drop by drop, 
Upon the quiet mountain top, 
Steals drowsily and musically 
Into the universal valley. 
The rosemary nods upon the grave; 
The lily lolls upon the wave; 
Wrapping the fog about its breast, 
The ruin moulders into rest; 
Looking like Lethe, see! the lake 
A conscious slumber seems to take, 
And would not, for the world, awake. 
All Beauty sleeps! — and lo! where lies 
(Her casement open to the skies) 
Irene, with her Destinies!.  
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1   

Stanza 1 Summary: At midnight in June the narrator observes in the moonlight a dreamlike scene in a misty valley with a tranquil lake and a cemetery. He wonders in which tomb lies the the lovely Irene.  

opiate: pacifying, calming   
musically: the soft breeze carrying the mist creates a sort of lullaby as it blows across the landscape and through trees  
universal valley: graveyard, representing the universality of death  
rosemary: evergreen shrub (or herb) in the mint family long used as a symbol of remembrance  
lolls: bobs gently  
ruin: tomb or cemetery  
moulders: decays  
Lethe: In Greek mythology, a river in Hades. Drinking its water induces forgetfulness. Here, the waters of the lake are still, as if in deep, forgetful sleep.  
casement: window that opens on hinges attached to the sash 
Irene: In Greek mythology, goddess of peace  
Irene: In Greek mythology, the goddess of peace (from the Greek, Eirene. The final e in Greek is long and is pronounced. It appears here that Poe intended the final e of Irene to be pronounced as well in order to maintain iambic tetrameter. 

2    

Oh, lady bright! can it be right —  
This window open to the night?  
The wanton airs, from the tree-top,  
Laughingly through the lattice drop —  
The bodiless airs, a wizard rout 
Flit through thy chamber in and out,  
And wave the curtain canopy  
So fitfully — so fearfully —  
Above the closed and fringèd lid  
'Neath which thy slumb'ring soul lies hid,  
That, o'er the floor and down the wall,  
Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall!  
Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear 
Why and what art thou dreaming here?  
Sure thou art come o'er far-off seas,  
A wonder to these garden trees!  
Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!  
Strange, above all, thy length of tress,  
And this all solemn silentness!  
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2 

Stanza 2 Summary: The narrator sees a tomb with an opening into which the roaming breeze blows, rustling the curtain over her coffin. The movement of the air causes the curtain to cast ghostly shadows. Is Irene afraid of the shadows? What is Irene dreaming about? The narrator asks these questions about Irene, whose beauty is a wonder in this garden setting. As if he can see her, he says the whiteness of her skin, her dress, and the length of her hair all appear strange 

window: the casement window of Stanza 1 
wanton: capricious, changeable, playful  
lattice: the crisscrossing bars on the casement window 
wizard rout: swarm or crowd (rout) of airs conjured by a wizard  
wave . . . canopy: blow the curtain of the canopy that covers the coffin. A canopy consists of fabric attached to four poles. Here, the canopy may simply be a pall draped over the coffin rather than the kind adorning a four-poster bed 
fringèd: having a border. The accented e (è) is necessary to create an extra syllable that maintains iambic tetrameter. 
shadows: those cast by the waving curtain  
hast . . . fear: Don't you fear the ghostly shadows?

3   

The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,  
Which is enduring, so be deep!  
Heaven have her in its sacred keep!  
This chamber changed for one more holy,  
This bed for one more melancholy,  
I pray to God that she may lie  
Forever with unopened eye,  
While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!

3   
  

Stanza 3 Summary: The narrator hopes that Irene's sleep will be deep and that heaven will place her under its care in the holiest of burial chambers. Moreover, he prays that God will grant her blissful eternal rest uninterrupted by ghosts.  
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4   

My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,  
As it is lasting, so be deep!  
Soft may the worms about her creep!  
Far in the forest, dim and old,  
For her may some tall vault unfold —  
Some vault that oft hath flung its black  
And wingèd panels fluttering back 
Triumphant, o'er the crested palls 
Of her grand family funerals — 
Some sepulchre, remote, alone,  
Against whose portal she hath thrown,  
In childhood, many an idle stone —  
Some tomb from out whose sounding door  
She ne'er shall force an echo more,  
Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!  
It was the dead who groaned within.

4   

Stanza 4 Summary: The narrator expresses hope that a burial vault in the forest will open its entrance to Irene. In childhood, she probably threw an idle stone against the door of the vault, causing the dead within to groan . When lying such a vault, she never again be able to cause an echo like the one resulting from the stone she threw.  

flung . . . back: opened its entrance to receive the deceased at the end of family funerals. 
crested palls: cloth coffin coverings, inscribed with a family emblem, such as a coat of arms.   
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