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.
How would you interpret this poem?
~ by longzijun
Interpretations of Poems
- The Road Most Mistaken: A Guide to Interpreting ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost
- In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound
- Harlem by Langston Hughes
- Mid-term Break by Seamus Heaney
- Three Translations of a Poem by Li Bai
- i thank You God for most this amazing by e. e. cummings
- Bear Hug by Michael Ondaatje
- There is No Word for Goodbye by Mary TallMountain
- My Life Closed Twice by Emily Dickinson
- Variations on the Word Sleep by Margaret Atwood
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