Sleep of Reason


Our Daily Correspondent


Volkov, Tatiana Larina’s Dream, 1891

When Edith M. Thomas wrote “Talking in Their Sleep” in 1885, she was already regarded as one of America’s foremost poets. Well into the last century, her poems were part of the canon—and this one, in particular, was a common inclusion in grade-school readers, memorized and recited by generations of students.

If you look at the 1919 textbook Wheeler’s Graded Literary Readers, with Interpretations, you’ll find “Talking in Their Sleep” presented as a straightforward story of plants and trees sleeping through the winter: “In the spring, just as boys and girls awake in the morning, they will awake again.” As a child, I found the poem terrifying. That something should seem dead when sleeping was scary enough; that the seeming-dead should also speak only made it worse. But then, sleep-talking has always frightened me.

You see, by day, I am caution personified. The self-designated peacemaker in a volatile family, I have always seen words as potentially lethal things to be managed with care and forethought. I rarely speak without considering what I say—will it offend someone? Anger them? Sound foolish? And I am morbidly self-conscious about my speaking voice; even into my thirties, I am regularly mistaken for a child on the telephone, which I avoid using with even my closest friends. Given these sensitivities, it has always struck me as both cruel and somehow fitting that my worst nightmare should come true on an almost nightly basis.

“I talk in my sleep,” I’ll tell someone nervously if I know we are to share a room, and the person will laugh—but no one has ever known what’s to come. Even I don’t, exactly, though I’m told my late-night soundtracks encompass everything from singing to screaming to fully intelligible monologues.

Anyone who hears such things is understandably alarmed—listeners will usually rouse me from what they assume to be a horrible night terror brought on by the buried memory of some early trauma. But in fact, my dreams are deadly dull. More often than not, when awoken, I’ll be in the midst of debating someone about a book, or a recipe, or arguing over the best place to buy a terry-cloth bathrobe. I just do it all at top volume. All the quotidian situations, I guess, in which I constantly, exhaustingly, needlessly police my words and thoughts.

Somniloquy affects 4 percent of adults. According to Wikipedia, “depending on its frequency, it may or may not be considered pathological.” I suspect mine might be pathological. In any case, those who love me are counseled to wear earplugs.

“You think I am dead,”
The apple tree said,
“Because I have never a leaf to show–
Because I stoop,
And my branches droop,
And the dull gray mosses over me grow!
But I’m still alive in trunk and shoot;
The buds of next May
I fold away–
But I pity the withered grass at my root.”
“You think I am dead,”
The quick grass said,
“Because I have parted with stem and blade!
But under the ground
I am safe and sound
With the snow’s thick blanket over me laid.
I’m all alive, and ready to shoot,
Should the spring of the year
Come dancing here–
But I pity the flower without branch or root.”
“You think I am dead,”
A soft voice said,
“Because not a branch or root I own.
I never have died,
But close I hide
In a plumy seed that the wind has sown.
Patient I wait through the long winter hours;
You will see me again–
I shall laugh at you then,
Out of the eyes of a hundred flowers.”