Interpreting Variations on the Word Sleep by Margaret Atwood

Let’s look at the meaning of this poem by Margaret Atwood.

Variations on the Word Sleep

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head.

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside you, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

     ~ by Margaret Atwood


This is a poem about love, about someone wanting to be loved and needed. It is written to someone who might one day become a lover. The narrator imagines what it would be like to watch over this person as he (or she) is sleeping. The narrator imagines entering that person’s dreams and being the one thing that saves him/her.

After reading the last stanza, you might wonder how someone as necessary as air (try surviving without air) could be unnoticed. There is an English expression—to take something for granted. We often take the people who are closest to us for granted, that is, we always expect them to be there for us. And often we won’t really know how important they are until they are gone.

The short line at the end (I would like to be that unnoticed & that necessary) sums up the wish expressed in the poem.


The poem has a very clear parallel structure in which the narrator:

  • Watches a person sleep
  • Enters that person’s dream
  • Descends to the center of the dream
  • Helps that person in the dream
  • Ascends from the center of the dream
  • Exits the dream
  • Comments on the sleeping person

I discuss this in more detail in: Poetry Techniques: Free Verse


One thing you will notice in the first stanza is the number of words beginning with S (sleeping, sleep, smooth, slides), W (would, watch, with, wave) or H (happen, head). These sounds are very soft and breathy—sounds well suited for sleeping (this technique of starting nearby words with the same consonant sound it known as alliteration).

Also, many of the phrases and sentences often begin and/or end in the middle of a line. And sentences only rarely are given a full-stop at the end of a line. This breaking up and mingling of phrases, sentences and lines is combined with the repetition of words and phrases (I would like to watch you sleeping…I would like to watch you/sleep.. to enter your sleep; from the grief at the center/of your dream/from the grief/at the center/) and the emphasis on soft sounds. Together, these features create a hypnotic atmosphere and call to mind the deep and steady breathing of someone who is asleep. This effect is more noticeable if you read the poem aloud and pause slightly at the end of each line and at the punctuation marks.

The repetition of slightly changed phrases and images (e.g. to enter your sleep . . . and you enter it as easily. . .) is similar to the repetition of musical motifs, hence the title Variations on the Word Sleep. This title is inspired by titles of works of music, such as Variations on a Theme by Paganini, that feature several adaptations and elaborations of a single melody.

Your Interpretation

How would you interpret this poem?

~ by longzijun

Interpretations of Poems

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