Friday, September 01, 2017

`Steep My Senses in Forgetfulness'

One of the minor inconveniences of living through a hurricane is the unsatisfactory nature of sleep. Normally, I quickly and effortlessly turn catatonic after slipping between the sheets. The subsequent six or seven hours are erased as thoroughly as time spent under anesthesia during surgery. With a storm raging on the other side of the wall, with fears of water-logged books, drowning pets and family members, days without air-conditioning and no cold lemonade, sleep is a sweaty, Coleridgean slide show of distasteful visions. One night I revisited the worst boss I have ever had, who died more than thirty years ago, and she was unhappy yet again with the job I had done. In dreams, we all return to childhood, a terrible fate. Boswell, during his adventure in Scotland, and without the help of a hurricane, would have understood. In the entry on this date, Sept. 1, in 1773, he writes in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785):

“I awaked very early. I began to imagine that the landlord, being about to emigrate, might murder us to get our money, and lay it upon the soldiers in the barn. Such groundless fears will arise in the mind, before it has resumed its vigour after sleep!”

Like Boswell, my newly awakened mind is murky on the best of mornings, before it has “resumed its vigour.” Boswell’s subsequent description of the sleeping Johnson is one to cherish:

“Dr Johnson had had the same kind of ideas; for he told me afterwards, that he considered so many soldiers, having seen us, would be witnesses, should any harm be done, and that circumstance, I suppose, he considered as a security. When I got up, I found him sound asleep in his miserable stye, as I may call it, with a coloured handkerchief tied round his head. With difficulty could I awaken him. It reminded me of Henry the Fourth's fine soliloquy on sleep; for there was here as `uneasy a pallet’ as the poet's imagination could possibly conceive.”

Boswell refers to Henry’s speech in Act III, Scene 1, which begins:

“How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?”

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