HSC Notes: 2 Unit General English:
Do you give yourself to me utterly,
Body and no-body, flesh and no-flesh,
Not as a fugitive, blindly or bitterly,
But as a child might, with no other wish?
Then shall I bear you down my estuary,
Carry you and ferry you to burial mysteriously,
Take you and receive you,
Consume you, engulf you,
In the huge cave, my belly, lave you
With huger waves continually.
And you shall cling and clamber there
And slumber there, in that dumb chamber,
Beat with my blood's beat, hear my heart move
Blindly in bones that ride above you,
Delve in my flesh, dissolved and bedded,
Through viewless valves embodied so–
Till daylight, the expulsion and awakening,
The riving and driving forth,
Life with remorseless forceps beckoning–
Pangs and betrayal of harsh birth.
The poem begins with a question; there are two
voices, and no narrator. However, it is only
one of these voices that sustains the poem,
and the other answers the question that is
posed in the first stanza.
Do you give yourself - give =
surrender, the sleeper is utterly giving
themselves, of their own free will.
Body and no-body etc. embraces physical
and non physical world; it is simple,
child-like, and utterly trustworthy. The
sleeper must be able to trust the sleep.
The response is simple, giving all,
repeating what the Sleep has asked for,
showing the enthrall it is under the
influence of. Note italicised response,
isolating the response from the question.
- From this, the point of surrender,
we see the journey of the sleeper from the
sleep to the awakening. This can also be
interpreted as the journey to the womb from the
ovaries for a foetus, through growth and
development, to birth.
- Note the repetition of the 'ou' sounds,
and 'y' sounds, that are reflective of a human
- burial mysteriously refers to
the child in the womb, sometimes referred to
in the past as the "great mystery of
birth". Can also refer to death, or the
- Carry you, and ferry you are
both very protective phrases, like a mother
comforting her child, and note the very
personal approach, verifying with each verb
that it will be done to 'you'. Note the water
imagery here that is present throughout the
- Take you and receive you have also a
sexual connotation; and notice that both words
are very positive in nature.
- Consume you, engulf you - to totally
surround, with protection, to become one with
sleep, a child, or a lover. More water
- huge cave - a refuge, a
dark place of safety. Evokes primitive images.
Also we can see the water imagery of a cave
by the sea, with waves crashing into it, which
is solidified in the next line. We also get an
image of the 'Cave of Morphius', which was a
great sleeper's cave, where there were
sleepers under enchantment.
- my belly - a
source of life, but also the vulnerable part
of the body. Continues the foetus journey
image. This can be a metaphorical image of
sleep, or a literal image of pregnancy, or can
even be seen as a metaphor of sexual union,
all of which suggest safety.
- lave is to wash; suggests great
t enderness, and love. Baptism is traditionally a
- huger waves continually- we see waves of
love, or sleep, or, when pregnant, the
contraction of the muscles in the womb, or the
process of intercourse.
- The sounds reinforce the ideas - the repetition
of the vowel sounds and the internal rhyme
produces a pulse that is remeniscent of a
heatrbeat, and the use of 'you' involves the
reader throughout the poem.
- dumb, chamber and other rhymes and
repetition of 'b' sounds, 'mb' and 'h' sounds
are like the beating of the heart. This
identifies with the sleeping baby or being
close to a lover.
- clamber - the child moving and kicking,
or the sleeper is restless and trying to hold
- dissolved and bedded and
delve in my flesh have a sexual
connotation, and also depicts life within the
womb, ie that the foetus has been carried deep
within the womb. Bed is a place of repose,
and it is here that sleep is succumbed to;
where a lover reaches climax, and where we
enter the deepest form of sleep. The
connection between the mother and baby is as
if they were one; as with lovers, and the
sleeper enters the realm of sleep, that they
dissolve into one.
- Blindly - blindly in
sleep, in womb, with lover, but hear
unconsciously the life beat around you.
- Viewless valves - the internal organs are
like a great machine...
- Embodied - to be given flesh and trade
into substance. So deep is the sleep that is
almost becomes a subsatnce. The child grows
towards being born as full child. Note
conception of child from sex cells to zygote
to embryo etc.
- Note the use of 'Till'. Like a climax within itself.
- daylight - awakening, light at the end of
the birth canal.
- expulsion a negative way
to push sleeper/baby/lover out: c/f The
Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of
Eden. (from somewhere they were safe to face
reality of death)
- Sleep profoundly essential
like water hence water imagery.
- The rhythm speeds up with harsh words and sounds
throughout this stanza.
- remorseless - without remorse. The
daylight just comes, and we can't prevent it,
or the coming of the baby etc.
- riving- to be ripped away from sleep,
lover, womb - life is personified as a
grim surgeon that pulls the baby out with
forceps; that is, forces the baby out.
- pang - a sudden pain.
- The philosophical nature of life is that it is
harsh and remorseless; once you wake up or are
born, or are away from the fantasy of being
with a lover, you are subject to reality and
Extract for "Sleep", Jaffa, ibid.
"In 'Sleep', we seem to encounter, at first, promises rather
than actual experiences - promises by Sleep to the you that
the you will have certain experiences. Yet, simultaneously,
because the experiences are promised in splendid poetry they
are experienced by the you while they are being promised. The
first stanza establishes the relationship through which the
promiser, Sleep, offers the experiences, and the you, the
sleeper, accepts them ...
"'Yes, utterly' is lovely, the effortless yielding of the
sleeper to Sleep, and the poem may be read with pleasure on
this simple level. But Slessor asks more of his poem. 'Sleep,'
'imagines the nightly human mystery of going to sleep
as a surrender to complete selflessness, in the form
of a return to the unconsciousness of a child in its
"So imagined, Sleep, the state of
unconsciousness, is personified as the mother, and the
sleeper, her child. And the child's response to the mother
in the first stanza - "Yes, utterly," - is a consenting to
the total immersion of 'body and no-body, flesh and no-flesh'
(that is to say, body and mind) within the enveloping ocean
Thus the nature of sleeping is pictured as the
oblivion of pre-life and that of awakening as
"Certainly, the poem allows other possibilities of
interpretation. Sleep, for example, might be thought of as a
woman addressing her lover, and the poem as a sexual
expression of their love. Of course, also, in that the sexual
act relates actually to birth and life and its climax
poetically to death, other combinations of meaning present
"We know Slessor's stated meaning in 'Sleep' and, as
indicated, the poem permits us to seek additional ones. But
with whatever we leave the poem, we are touched with an almost
physical awareness the poet's purpose has been precisely
served by the technical devices he has chosen. It may be an
exaggeration to say that we, as readers, have been mesmerised
by Slessor's blending of idea, sound, and rhythm. It is much
less so to suggest that in our reading out loud of Sleep's
enticement of the sleeper, we have not escaped the lulling
effect of the verse.
"How has the poet accomplished this, technically?
Essentially, by conducting successfully what he defines as:
'an experiment in the narcotic effect of the repetition of
certain consonant- structures and vowel sounds ... the
significant vowel-sound [being] the long 'U' in such words
and phrases as 'bear you', 'estuary', 'carry you', 'ferry
you', 'take you', 'receive you', 'consume you', 'engulf you',
'huge cave' and 'huger waves'." Of course, also, the effect is
served by many internal rhymes and assonances such as 'ferry'
and 'burial', 'cave', 'lave', 'waves', 'slumber', 'dumb',
'remorseless', 'forceps' and so on. "...the comfort of the
womb (the past, in terms of returning to it) compared to the
discomfort of birth (and the confrontation with the present)
reminds us of another preoccupation of the poet."
Back to the main HSC page