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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
What is Sleep? From the Medical to the Metaphori

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What is Sleep? From the Medical to the Metaphorical

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton defined sleep as a “binding” of the senses. This “binding” was routinely described as the product of digestion, thought to be sleep’s primary cause. Medical writers asserted that fumes produced during digestion ascended from the stomach to the brain, where they impeded the passage of the “animal spirits” responsible for rational and sensory activity. At the same time, sleep had non-medical significance, lending itself to a variety of literary and allegorical interpretations.

Richard Brathwaite. Ar’t asleepe husband? London, 1640

Sleep was represented in a variety of literature of the day. Samuel Daniel’s influential sonnet sequence, Delia, features a poem addressed to “Care-charmer sleepe,” the most famous example of a sub-genre of poetry devoted to sleep. Other Elizabethans who wrote on this topic include Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare.


Richard Braithwaite, an Oxford-educated poet and satirist, wrote a compendium of stories and aphorisms with a range of moralizing functions, from teaching moderation to scrutinizing fashion, but it takes its title--Art Asleep Husband? A boulster lecture--from the figure of a scolding wife “lecturing” her husband while he pretends to sleep.


Medical writers, like Somerset physician Tobias Venner, also had something to say about the benefits and detriments of certain sleep. Venner argues for the benefits of sleeping with one’s mouth open. He also stresses sleep’s link to “concoction,” or digestion, which he deems “the root of life.”








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