It’s grey hair on the pillow now.
Night owl, I inhabit a still house, keeping quiet, not wanting to disturb my sleeping wife. Even for me, awake, such hours have the feel of dreams. A pool of light under my lamp where I sit reading, half-lit hallways and stairwells, rooms rendered into blocks of solid darkness. I take the first watch. My wife, an irregular sleeper, too, may turn on a lamp low over her bed, later, trading her dreams for the dream of stories.
Ours is the life of readers, growing old. A night slept through is now a great rarity. The years when my wife covered her pillow with a yard of golden hair are long gone, and, in truth, I did not know her then. Now she sleeps with the sun, at first at least in what we call the dying bed. I bought it for myself, to be ready, a bed small and old in fumed oak, a pencil-post bed, fitting, I thought.
Sometimes I’ll stand at a window, the glass swimming with darkness. Or I’ll write. Or take down an art book and look at paintings, letting the images in. Lately it’s been Pre-Raphaelite paintings, in the wake of an exhibit we attended at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Living in a small town, we don’t see a big exhibition often, and when we do the impression often ripples through my mind like a banner in the wind, for days, even for months.
Often, before I get into bed to read some more, and finally perhaps to sleep, I’ll check on my wife, asleep in the little bed, her face at ease, unmade. I understand that I’m allowed, that I’m included in her privacy, that she trusts me to come and go in the night, to watch over her. Oddly, because she doesn’t know I’m there, because my presence is not registered, it feels as if my own face dissolves in looking. The masks that persist in even our most intimate moments fall away, and I see, though the hour is late and the room dark.
The Pre-Raphaelites, too, took an interest in sleep, in faces unguarded, figures fallen under the spell of Morpheus. Looking at such paintings, we see as if we are trusted in the room, trusted to see faces with their masks off. We see as if. I’m thinking just now of Simeon Solomon’s The Sleepers, and the One Who Watcheth.
But, these sleepers don’t seem to be in a room, or lying down. It’s a peculiarity of Solomon’s sleepers that they do not recline at all but seem to drift, upright, against a starry sky. There is something a bit disorienting about this, about where it puts me when I’m viewing the painting. Adrift with the sleepers in that saturated sky, in sleep?
And, in this life, when have I seen sleepers so close, at such an angle? Only bending over a bed or looking across my pillow at a lover next to me. That is, the angle itself suggests intimacy. Though, with the three faces already in the painting, that remembered bed is getting crowded. Still, the night sky that pillows these sleepers is vast, roomy, I imagine.
Only the red-haired girl is painted full face, and though her neck is encircled by a tangle of hands, she seems far gone into herself. Hers is the very face of an interiority that has fled from other people, though the young man to her right has turned to her in his own, perhaps less oblivious slumber. His is a gesture that doesn’t reach her. When I look at him, the composition feels melancholy. When I look at her, I feel the fullness of the dream, unsocialized, perhaps even uncivilized. His tenderness suggests that tenderness only reaches so far, that the dreamer in her is beyond her lover. In the tangle of hands, her left hand holds her right.
In sleep, the girl flees even from love; not like Daphne, afoot, but inward. The lover’s hands, loosely but perhaps ominously around her neck, cannot close on her ghostly self-possession. Hers is the serene beauty of an inner illumination, a completion that wants for nothing, for no one. As sleep can be. But she flees to get it, away from others, from lovers, perhaps the painting suggests even away from the familiar constructions of reality in which the sleeper lies down.
That sleep suggests flight received a Symbolist registration in several late Solomon works, where the figure of sleep appears with a wing closed against her temple:
In this drawing, “Somnium,” a poppy has replaced sleep’s ear, suggesting perhaps the exclusion of sound in sleep, of words, and all of their reality-formulating power. Here, too, it’s a face that wants not. The lover has gone, or perhaps more accurately, individuals have been supplanted by states of mind. When Soloman does give sleep a consort, his titles suggest they are allegorical rather than human: Night and Sleep, Night Looking upon Sleep her Beloved Child, The Moon and Sleep, and these figures too look at a gone sleeper, who has flown from them. Alone, as in Somnium and The Winged and Poppied Sleep, the figure of sleep wears poppies in her hair. Sometimes sleep is hard to get. For me and my wife, too.
But I don’t avail myself of the poppy. I like the way the world recedes deep in the night. I try to let it go, in the still house the entanglements of the daylight world loosening. Some flowers bloom at night. Some things grow only in isolation. Insomnia is the night gardener.
So I open again to Solomon’s watercolor The Sleepers, and the One Who Watcheth. The saturated pigments, the greens, greys and blues, purples, are the very colors of insomnia. The figures are softly lit, as if by the attention of the viewer, and show fair against their robes, the night sky. The red-haired girl, the young lover from whom she has withdrawn, and the brown-haired one, who watches.
The watcher makes an anomalous third. Beautiful, androgynous. The watcher’s clear blue eyes are open, looking away, but not intently. Pensive, sad. Doubly excluded, the watcher’s knowing face suggests acquiescence. If I just look, accept the painting without questioning it, the watcher resolves the composition quite wonderfully. Three balanced faces in an arc, and the purplish grey of the watcher’s robe is the purplish grey of the lover’s, their robes swirl around the girl’s green robe, and the night sky behind their pale faces seems compounded of darker hues of those purples and greens.
But I don’t just look: the presence of the third figure sets the mind whirling, supposing. Does the painting suggest a ménage a trois? Is the watcher some rejected third, imagining up a love affair in which he, or she, does not share? Or does the painting suggest the intrusion of a woman on the love of two men, if the watcher is read as male. The fact that Solomon would be arrested, his career ruined, less than two years after he painted The Sleepers, and the One Who Watcheth for an indiscretion in a public bathroom, washes back on how the painting reads now. Perhaps Solomon painted the girl as girl, gave her a wedding ring, to disguise what was really a homoerotic attraction. Her face is, after all, only slightly less androgynous than the watcher’s. In which case the watcher, watchfulness, was indeed called for, as events proved.
These, finally irresolvable questions generate an interpretive interest, no doubt. But the kinds of interpretations they encourage move away from Solomon’s title, and, indeed, away from what might be an actual interest in sleep, an interest that is attested to by Solomon’s obsessive returns to sleep as a subject both before and after his arrest. Worrying Solomon’s sexuality while looking at this painting participates in a kind of consciousness that is very awake, far from the dreaming consciousness of images the painting invokes directly. The watcher is awake, in contrast to the sleeping girl. The watcher’s expression is alert, concerned, in contrast to the sleeping girl’s look of repletion.
It’s late, I let go of thinking, just looking at the painting, wondering. Memories of sleeping faces float by, of my wife, of wives, lovers. Happy in sleep. Sleep not resisted but sought, as a good in itself. I don’t hurry, I examine the tiny flowers scattered over the sleepers under a magnifying glass. They look like night-blooming jasmine, sweet-scented jasmine. I check the etymology of watch in the big dictionary and am not surprised to find that watch and awake share the same root. I consider insomnia, which doesn’t mean awake but not asleep. And I find it’s so, I’m not asleep but not fully awake either. My allegiances drift well away from the daylight world. Sometimes it seems I enter the sleeping world awake. Then I see my wakefulness from the other side, my waking hours as no more than a foray into a socialized consciousness from which I retreat to the house of sleep.
It was perhaps June, summer anyway, and years ago now, when my wife and I on a culture crawl in Pittsburgh visited the Frick Art & Historical Center on the promise of a traveling exhibition devoted to, if I remember correctly, The Aesthetic Moment. There, we walked right into Frederic Leyton’s Flaming June.
Perhaps that day Flaming June planted the seed of this essay, but the painting itself is certainly in full bloom. Florescent, exactly. A hundred years on the painting proved still capable of generating a buzz. Even in the age of porn, Flaming June seemed to conduct an electric, erotic charge to the otherwise listless museum-goers. Though not to me. I was startled, yes, by the sheer orange of the girl’s negligee. And, initially, by her great thigh. At first, it seemed like too much thigh to me. I stood in front of the big painting for a long time, slowly coming to appreciate the s-curve of the girl’s body in the square frame, in a painting in which almost every line is horizontal. Indeed, the girl’s great thigh participates in all that horizontality equally with the horizon line itself. Reading down, an awning, a panel of sky, the horizon, a panel of burning sea, the balustrade, her thigh, the bench, the floor line, and a panel of floor, all horizontal.
The S of the sleeper’s form interrupts all that rectilinearity, as sleep interrupts the tyranny of waking consciousness. It blooms against geometry. Perhaps the poppy is suggested by the girl’s orange sheath. Perhaps death is suggested by the blooming oleander. Looking, here in the night, I can smell its sweet, powdery scent. If the sleeping girl were smaller, the severity of all that surrounds her would dominate my response to the painting. She’s big because Leighton brings us close. The perspective itself generates intimacy. And this is the implication of the length of her thigh—to be so long, it has to be seen from very close. But if she’s happy with a lover here, it’s sleep, not the viewer. Her eyes are closed, her distant smile directed inward. She doesn’t invite you any closer.
Still, at the Frick, the museum-goers seemed inclined to snigger. So perhaps Leighton does make of the viewer a voyeur, a viewer so inclined. The authors of books on Victorian painting often seem to subscribe to the notion that the attraction of paintings like Flaming June, of paintings of sleeping girls, is that the girls were read as sexually available. Are we to imagine all Victorians crowded into the Royal Academy shows as if into an “adult” bookstore, that the attraction of these paintings was pornographic? I know, looking at Flaming June, I feel no impulse to jump her, indeed no impulse to wake her. The very suggestion that I’m meant to imagine doing anything to a painting strikes me as a ludicrous mistake.
So what if my response is idiosyncratic? I read the sinuous S of her body as the S of sleep. Yes, hers is a naked body under sheer silk, but we take off the clothes of the day, of daylight consciousness, and dress, or undress, for sleep. Flaming June appeals to the kind of mind that I repress to participate in the wide-awake world, to a mind given rather than learned.
Perhaps the champion sleeper in the canon of Victorian painting is Sleeping Beauty, in Burne-Jones’ Briar Roseseries. I’m thinking especially of The Rose Bower. An early version of the painting features the sleeping princess and her attendants in sheer nightgowns that could be off the same rack as June’s. Loose, diaphanous, though not florescent. Margaret, Burne-Jones’ daughter, is recognizable in the princess. She modeled for the princess in both this, relatively spare painting, and in the more elaborate final version. I find it hard to believe that Burne-Jones would have painted his own daughter with an eye to eliciting sexual fantasies, that he wanted her to look “available.”
She does look beautiful. And beauty as an end in itself was a key idea in the move from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the Aesthetic Movement. Burne-Jones certainly leaned towards beauty. Contemporary critics often characterized for-beauty paintings as subjectless, which meant, I guess, not narrative. But Burne-Jones’ Briar Rose series obviously depends on the story of Sleeping Beauty to be fully legible.
So, half awake, somewhere on the morning side of midnight, I read the two versions of Sleeping Beauty that Burne-Jones would have consulted in the years he was working on the Briar Rose series, Charles Perrault’s and that of the brothers Grimm. You know the story. A princess is born. In one version seven faeries, and in the other twelve Wise Women, are invited to a great feast to celebrate the birth. The feast is served on gold. The guests bestow gifts on the child. The faeries beauty, an angelic temper, grace, dance, song, and music. The Wise Women virtue, beauty, riches, “and so on.” But, by accident, one fairy, one Wise Woman, has been excluded from the feast served on gold, and when she turns up she blights the feast with her own gift, a prophecy that the princess must die when she pricks her finger. We know, reading the tale, she’ll have that accident. Perhaps it’s the evil fairy’s gift, the witch’s gift, that Burne-Jones recalls in the sheer nightgowns of the girls, which look to me at this hour as much like shrouds as nightgowns. In both stories, a last fairy, a last Wise Woman, gets the last word, after the curse. Not strong enough to counteract the evil prophecy entirely, their spell can only ameliorate it. Rather than death, when the princess pricks her finger she will fall into a hundred-years sleep. And so it happens, the princess, and every living thing in the castle, slumbers a century.
In the final version of the painting, an interior decorator has dressed the bedroom, the girls, in splendid textiles. Burne-Jones’ daughter drapes her yard of red hair across the orange silk of a soft cushion. The upright postures of wakefulness have long since succumbed to gravity, have relaxed out of the vertical, assumed the horizontal, as Thomas Mann put it in The Magic Mountain.
On the Magic Mountain, as in life, the years reel away unaccountably, though not so fantastically as they do for Sleeping Beauty. A hundred years… I look at the painting and, at my age, imagine her feet must be cold. And, even though a hundred years sounds long those years long since elapsed, the princess must have awakened to rejoin time, her red hair gone grey then white to spread at last on a small cushion in her coffin. Burne-Jones’ Margaret, too. I know it’s the love story that Sleeping Beauty is remembered for, a King’s son, after those hundred years, waking the sleeping girl with a kiss. But that’s not the part of the story that interests me now, and Burne-Jones depicts her sleeping still.
And, sleeping, she has taken the gifts of the Wise Women, of the faeries, with her into somnium. Beauty first, and grace, and so on, all asleep. In Sleeping Beauty, the world awake is choked with thorns; in Burne-Jones’ paintings we see them hanging over the sleeper’s very bed. Sleep itself become the repository of all the glad virtues that seem now more remembered than known. The world of our waking, fallen, blighted. And so it often seems.
In the story of Sleeping Beauty, the world, our world, is suffering under a spell, cast by that angry witch or fairy. The uninvited guest, who wanted to feast on gold. Sleeping Beauty seems to suggest that envy, avarice blights the world, is the angry witch of the waking world. And the spell is deep. Sometimes it seems a spell from which there will be no waking shy of apocalypse, that the waking world teems with witches who want nothing so much as gold. And beauty sleeps while the world roars.
In sleep, as the idiom has it, we are dead to the world. So, in a sense, every bed is a dying bed. We lie down to die to the world. At night, the mind makes its own mysterious leaps, and in considering the idiom I remembered a painting by J.W. Waterhouse, Sleep and his Half-Brother Death, the brothers side by side together on their dying bed. Two boys in bed together, slipped by the censors under cover of allegory! And perhaps that’s part of it.
I searched our house quietly, finding a volume of Waterhouse finally in a bookcase in the living room, then back up the four dark flights of stairs to my attic study, where I sat down by windows overlooking the graveyard across the street. A lone car coming up Dorsey swept the graveyard with its headlights; then on it went, around a turn into the night. I found the painting, the boy death with his feet shrouded, sleep clutching poppies in his crossed hands. Death, at a further remove, darkened by the shadows of the canopied bed. Sleep with his head pillowed lightly against death’s shoulder, dead to the world. Together they seem to have escaped from the reign of waking consciousness, from thinking and doing.
But then my attention was diverted by the unexpected appearance of a small reproduction of Simeon Solomon’s The Sleepers, and the One Who Watcheth immediately under the Waterhouse painting. I was surprised to see it there. Apparently, Waterhouse was greatly impressed by the androgynous beauty of Solomon’s watcher and to achieve a similar effect in Sleep and his Half-Brother Death he employed girls to model the brothers’ faces there on the dying bed.
Thinking about it now, I like Waterhouse’s cheekiness, his confidence that language, his allegorical title, would blind the crowds at the Summer Exhibition, where his painting was, in fact, well received. Not a whiff of scandal attended those boys in bed, though the great scandal, indeed the virtual banishment of Solomon had taken place only two years before. It’s not hard to imagine that an alternative title for the painting would have garnered Waterhouse a very different reception.
So my day is almost done. The sun went down a long time ago. Soon it will be rising red in my east-facing window. Every day has an unfinished feel, luminous passages, too, but something sketchy in the whole. Things that matter don’t get finished. And yet the day is rounded by sleep, most days, anyway. I think of Waterhouse’s way of painting, of non finito. How a painting can be more suggestive for not being finished in every detail. I think I first ran across the term reading about Waterhouse. But hadn’t I preferred Michelangelo’s Slaves to his David, all those years ago when hardly more than a boy I saw them at the Accademia di Belle Arti? The way their forms emerged from great blocks of rough-hewn marble. They were non finito but done. Like a day when sleep comes, not finished but done. Or a life, any life, its form known only in dying.
Weeks on. I’ve been out West and am now returning, flying the redeye back East. A different kind of sleeplessness. Hardly a reading light on anywhere in the plane, but I’m reading. I’ve come back to The Sleepers, and the One Who Watcheth; I’ve tracked down a copy of Simon Reynolds’ The Vision of Simeon Solomon through interlibrary loan, because it includes Solomon’s A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, a prose poem, in the manner of medieval dream visions. I know the genre, in English the dream visions of Chaucer, Langland, and the Pearl Poet come to mind. All of which rhymes, I guess, with the pre of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I notice that in Solomon’s recital sleep not only occasions vision but appears allegorized in his vision, as a subject, as in his paintings. I look up from my book. How odd, all these sleepers in their neat rows, hurtling through darkness at a height and speed terrific but unacknowledged in this still cabin. Of what are these sleepers dreaming? Just a thin skin from air too cold to live and too thin to breathe. I listen to Diana Jones on my iPhone, singing, flying, “heaven is a short flight away,/ up in the high atmosphere,” very short. And I think of Jules Verne and his Around the World in 80 Days. 80 days! That was barely imaginable speed then, Verne’s story set in 1872, published in 1873, the very year of Solomon’s disgrace, his fall from grace out of the high atmosphere. Two years after he’d painted The Sleepers, and the One Who Watcheth and published A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, he was cast out, to eat off gold no more.Solomon spiraled down, as Diana Jones has it, “to the land below,” soon living as a vagrant on London’s streets, selling matches and shoelaces for drink, finally taking shelter in St. Giles Workhouse in 1884. Where he came and went for the next 21 years, dying there in 1905.
All his famous friends abandoned him, or almost all. In the end, a man laboring under a curse, drunken and unkempt, he would no doubt have made a difficult friend. But who would you become, shunned? I lift the shade and peek out the window at the stars. Still strewn as in Solomon’s time, still their beauty. I’m surprised and heartened to read in my book that Solomon’s descent didn’t wholly break him, that he maintained an “incorrigible cheerfulness and stubborn lack of repentance” as late as 1893. The photographer Frederic Hollyer maintained an irregular friendship with Solomon, and he circulated photographs of the painter’s work. Slowly Solomon’s paintings began to reappear in shows. And almost as soon as he was dead—of course—his work was recognized with a major retrospective at the Baillie Gallery. But I prefer to end before that, in a scene recorded by Julia Ellsworth Ford in an appreciation of Solomon published in 1908 (and redacted by Reynolds). They were gathered together in Hollyer’s studio, when Solomon picked up a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and read out the short poem, “A Clear Midnight”:
This is the hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes
thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
KEVIN ODERMAN is a professor of English at West Virginia University. White Vespa, his most recent book, is an expat novel set in Greece; a collection of his literary essays on travel, Cannot Stay, is forthcoming in 2015 (both books from Etruscan Press). He lives in Morgantown with his wife, the writer Sara Pritchard.