Thursday, September 3, 2009

Now I lay thee down to Sleep

Now I lay thee down to Sleep--
I pray the Lord thy Dust to keep--
And if thou live before thou wake--
I pray the Lord thy Soul to make--
(F 1575)

This poem strikes me as rather sordid-- an example of Dickinson's ability to take the familiar and twist it. It seems to have gothic overtones, though it is not overtly gothic, and it reminds me strongly of something that William Blake might have penned.

She plays off of the children's prayer, which evidently must date back to at least the 1800s and is still used widely today:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

It's a simple prayer to memorize, though no doubt the archaic language leave many children mindlessly reciting something of which they have no understanding. The simplistic and highly consistent rhyme give it a sort of deceptive effect. It seems to soothe and lull in tone, but the language derails and leaves the reader in a far different place than he or she expected. Rather than going to sleep for the night, it opens with what the reader infers must be a death. The first line is only altered from the children's rhyme by the pronoun "thee," making the reader suspect something is amiss but likely thinking little of it until reaching the next line with the strange "dust to keep."

It's interesting that Dickinson inverts the language of the original prayer. The child in the original "Now I lay me down to sleep" willingly offers up the mortal part, formed of the dust of the earth in the biblical tradition, in exchange for safekeeping of the immortal soul. In this strange new version of the prayer, the speaker begs for the preservation of the mortal body and an incarnation of the soul. I still am not sure what to make of the final line and what conclusion Dickinson or the speaker lead the reader to draw. It's something I hope to return to.

1 comment:

  1. Susan did in fact write the obituary - you can see the original of it here. Susan is probably my favorite person in the Emily Dickinson world - there is some wonderful information on her relationship with Emily in both 'Rowing in Eden' and 'Open Me Carefully', both co-authored or authored by Martha Nell Smith from University of Maryland. She is also involved, I believe in the site linked to above, which has a treasure of trove of writings by many members of the Dickinson family, including Susan.