Caffeine and the Coming of the Enlightenment
Roger Schmidt . Raritan . New Brunswick: Summer 2003. Vol. 23 , Iss. 1; pg. 129
Author(s): Roger Schmidt
Document types: Feature
Publication title: Raritan. New Brunswick: Summer 2003. Vol. 23, Iss. 1; pg. 129
Source type: Periodical
Text Word Count 7261
Abstract (Document Summary)
Schmidt highlights the story of Nicholas Hart's unusual sleeping habit, and presents several writers' thoughts and interpretations of sleep by discussing passages from "Macbeth," "The Tempest," "Astrophil and Stella," "Epistle to Fortesque," "The Rape of the Lock," and "The Dunciad." He notes that for people who are accustomed to regarding sleep as a metaphor for death, for nullity, the word evokes pathos. Writers, however, view sleep in a different perspective: one's waking moments lie surrounded by a strange and slumbering world, the borders of which lie just beyond consciousness, and whose vastness makes one's waking life seem little indeed.
Full Text (7261 words)
Copyright Rutgers University Summer 2003
ON THE FIFTH of August 1711, Nicholas Hart, age twenty-two, entered the Cock and Bottle tavern in Little Britain, lay down on a bench, and, amid a small crowd of curious lookers-on, fell into a deep sleep from which, we are told, he could not be awakened for five days. It was a sleep over which he had no control and which had come upon him every year of his life, always on the same day, the fifth of August, his birthday. His father, a "great astronomer," gave assurances that his son would never die while in a long sleep. The previous year Hart had slept at St. Bartholomew Hospital, London, and upon awakening on the fifth day, described his voyage to the other world to the writer "William Hill, of Lincoln's-Inn, gent.," mentioning in particular that he had been introduced to the queen at St. James.
Nicholas Hart, "the Sleeper," was very likely the last-and perhaps the most sensational-voyager into the Renaissance world of sleep. Coleridge, anguished insomniac, author of "The Pains of Sleep," tried to follow Hart's soundless footsteps into the other world, but the doors had closed. Laudanum gave mixed results. Though he caught glimpses of a sacred river and "caverns measureless to man" the visions seemed as evanescent as one's breath on a winter night, and that wonderful fragment of a poem, "Kubla Khan," served only to indicate his estrangement from the dreaming world-a curious postcard from a region whose existence seemed doubtful: "If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream," wrote Coleridge in Anima Poetae, "and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke-Ay! And what then?"
And what then?
One turns to Shakespeare, who needed no such flowers from that luminous region entered through the portals of sleep. The "weird sisters" strut out of the dreamworld into Macbeth's life, as real as the heath on which he stands, reminiscing, as the play opens, over the punishment they've meted out to a hapless sailor whose wife had insulted them: sleep shall desert him till he's "dry as hay," a wasted shadow. It is a fate Macbeth will soon grow too familiar with-
Methought I heard a voice cry sleep no more!
Macbeth doth murder sleep; the innocent sleep;
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care;
The birth of each day's life, sore labours bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
Shakespeare did not take sleep lightly. "We are such stuff," Prospero proclaims in The Tempest,
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
To a modern reader, accustomed to regarding sleep as a metaphor for death, for nullity, the words evoke pathos. To Shakespeare and his contemporaries, however, the meaning was much different: one's waking moments lie surrounded by a strange and slumbering world, the borders of which lie just beyond consciousness, and whose vastness makes our waking life seem little indeed. Our diurnal life seems mere dross in comparison, "stuff" awaiting the alchemical transformation that sleep will bring. John Donne, preaching to the king in 1630, spoke of sleep as "a shaking hands with God," a nightly entrance into the divine presence. By Coleridge's day, however, the infinite, glimmering fields of sleep had shrunk to the size of a folio page. And for someone like Rip Van Winkle, those fields existed not at all. Rip falls asleep in one sentence and wakes up in the next, having spent twenty years in a state of complete and utter vacuity. How did this change come about?
Nicholas Hart's life may be the stuff Grub Street journalism is made on, but one admires it all the same. In the 1580s, in the thirty-ninth sonnet of Astrophil and Stella, Sir Phillip Sidney called sleep "the poore man's wealth"
Come sleepe, o sleepe, the certaine knot of peace,
The bathing place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poore man's wealth, the prisoner's release,
Th'indifferent judge between the high and low.
Hart's endeavors to make a living by sleeping in public pays fitting tribute to Sidney, if not to Shakespeare and the old culture in general. Let us celebrate the memory of Nicholas Hart. His account of voyages into the strange seas of sleep, which could be had for all of two pence, sadly did not fare well, drawing the polite scorn of Joseph Addison, who, in The Spectator for October of that year, let his gentle readers know that sleeping is not the poor man's wealth, but the poor man's vice, as well as the vice of many an English gentleman-slothful drones who greet each other on the street with yawns. The war on sleep had begun.
That other world reached through the strange nocturnal journey of sleep turns out to be the world we have lost. We have as a culture become estranged from that fount of poetry and art so familiar to the old culture, and have distanced ourselves from one of the most elemental and ancient sources of spirituality we are ever likely to encounter. The causes of this estrangement are various, but one can reconstruct its history, starting around 1650 when, according to Anthony a Wood, "Jacob, a Jew, opened a coffey house at the Angel, in the Parish of S. Peter in the East, Oxon, and there it was by some, who delighted in Noveltie, drank." Within a decade, caffeine had profoundly altered the feel of London life; coffee and tea (which soon followed) were at the center of London's transformation to a commercial power, with coffee shops and tea houses becoming important institutions for political, economic, and cultural transactions. A broadside appearing in 1660 advertising the benefits of tea made clear what the virtues of the drink were; the writer, Thomas Garway, noted that tea "prevents sleepiness in general, a draught of the infusion being taken, so that without trouble whole nights may be spent in study without hurt to the body." One stays up "whole nights" to read uninterruptedly for hours on end, a scholar's dream, but not until the advent of caffeine could such desires be consistently realized. And with the rising tide of caffeine came books, an undifferentiated flood of reading matter out of which the "novel" was born, that genre that so distressed the conservative literary establishment. The history of caffeine consumption cannot be extricated from the history of literary consumption, especially of the novel, and both are implicated in the historical devaluation of sleep as a meaningful activity. It is hard to imagine the common reader progressing enjoyably through the nine hundred pages of Tom Jones or the seven volumes of Clarissa without the aid of artificial stimulants. Nor can one easily imagine how the common reader met the demand for time such long works impose, except by reading into the night-indeed, by reading in bed, "a dangerous practice," according to Samuel Johnsons friend, Sir John Hawkins, alarmed by this new trend.
Intersecting with the unprecedented and heavy use of caffeine and the practice of reading in bed was the historical shift in the perception of time, a subject that has been much written about, though no historian has described this shift in relation to disruptions in patterns of human sleep. In 1656, the Dutch astronomer Christaan Huygens perfected the pendulum clock, and within decades fairly accurate pocket watches began to appear. The shift from measuring time against the natural movement of light and darkness to measuring it by the clock eroded the last foundations of the nocturnal world. A clock does not discriminate between night and day-to a machine, all hours are the same. Johnson, solacing the midnights with endless cups of tea, strewing the floor about his bed with read and half-read books, computing the vanishing minutes on his tortoiseshell watch, was among the first to chart in his diary this desolate region of insomnia brought into being by these historical changes. A comparison with Samuel Pepys, whose diary was written as these changes were occurring but before they had altered the structures of everyday life, is instructive: his entries typically begin with a cheerful "Up" and end with the now proverbial, "And so to bed." It is hard to imagine an easier relation to sleep.
Caffeine, books, and mechanical clocks disrupted irrevocably the ancient architecture of human sleep, and with its collapse, the angels and their odd companions began to depart. The rise of Enlightenment science and the spread of capitalism reconfigured the world in spectacular ways, but their histories have obscured the more quiet, and equally profound, revolution in the world of sleep. Sleep deprivation is both a symptom of modernity, as well as one of its primary causes. At the very least, it seems worth inquiring whether that sense, common in the eighteenth century, of a newly widened gulf between the divine presence and human society, can be entirely dissociated from the chronic sleep loss the period's major thinkers and writers experienced.
I am not suggesting that no one slept badly before 1660 or so, but rather that the activity of sleep becomes increasingly problematic for large numbers of people after this date; attitudes become conflicted and morally urgent in ways previously unfelt. Discussions of sleep in the late Renaissance, for example, focus almost exclusively on its hygienic aspects; immoderate sleep, or sleeping during the day or after a large meal, is to be avoided because it was thought by some to be injurious to one's health. By 1748, however, the year Benjamin Franklin voices the clearest expression of the commodification of time ("Remember, time is money"), immoderate sleep is not seen as unhealthy, but rather as a sinful waste of time-an indication of a slothful and idle temperament. E. P. Thompson pointed out the appropriateness of Weber's choice of Franklin as the central example in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And what Weber said of capitalism perhaps holds true for sleep as well. Capitalism was not invented in the seventeenth or eighteenth century; rather one sees a transformation of attitudes toward capitalism, from an impulse viewed in the Middle Ages "as the lowest form of avarice," to something viewed in Franklin's day as respectable and ethically responsible. So, too, with sleeplessness, and for reasons clearly related to capitalism; what was in the Renaissance a sign of ill health becomes in the Enlightenment an emblem of virtue, industry, and, above all, self-discipline. In the works of Shakespeare, references to sleep are numerous and by and large affirmative; by the mid-eighteenth century, however, sleep has become nearly synonymous with sloth.
For several years now I have been tracing the demise of the rich world of Renaissance sleep. What began as an inquiry into the relation between Johnson's melancholy and his chronic insomnia turned into much larger speculations on the role sleep deprivation might have played in the collapse of the humanist tradition. I studied Johnson's diaries, as well as the journals of James Boswell, Johnson's great biographer, fascinated by how little either slept and by how frequently they complained of fatigue, inertia, gloom, and I soon found myself sketching out what seemed a massive upheaval in the patterns of sleeping and wakefulness in early eighteenth-century London. I assumed initially that others must have made similar inroads into the history of sleep, yet until quite recently, search after search found nothing. I found this baffling, given the amount of clinical research on the subject, and given how profoundly sleep colors our encounter with the waking world, affecting even the condition of consciousness itself.
Nearly 250 years ago Samuel Johnson noted with some irony that sleep had yet to find its historian. This situation has at last been remedied. In an award-winning article, and in a forthcoming book, A. Roger Ekirch has fully reconstructed what sleep was like for people before the industrial revolution. Segmented sleep-that is, two periods of sleep of approximately four hours duration, separated by an interval of about an hour of wakefulness or semiwakefulness-appears to have been the norm. Though many things conspired occasionally to disrupt this pattern of sleep, on the whole it fostered a much more intimate connection to the world of dreams than the more consolidated sleep typical of the modern era. During this lucid nocturnal interval, dreams were often remembered and reflected upon. Ekirch sees this arrangement as gradually fading away over several centuries as improvements in lighting encroached upon the traditional dark; the slow evolution from candles and rush lights, to oil lamps, to gas lamps, and finally to electric lighting parallels the evolution of modern consolidated sleep and the loss of this nocturnal interval.
As compelling and thorough as Ekirch s research is, I would like to suggest that the history of modern sleep is not one of slow evolutionary change, but rather of an abrupt transformation that occurred in the late seventeenth century; advances in lighting technology were a response to this change rather than a primary cause. Caffeine, books, a shift in the perception of time, and a concomitant shift in the valuation of sleep, created a demand for better nocturnal lighting.
One morning in 1753, around 3 A.M., Johnson, roused from nocturnal reading by two drunken companions pounding on his door, went roving off into the London night, eventually to stop at Covent Garden where, according to Boswell, the forty-four-year-old lexicographer tried to help the greengrocers set up their stalls. His uncouth figure met with incredulous stares from the gardeners, and so the three retired to a tavern to breakfast on punch, where Johnson, in "joyous contempt," sang out against sleep:
Short, O short then be thy reign,
And give us to the world again!
Sleep was Johnson's most dogged adversary, and though while in a tavern he might seem triumphant, in his diary one finds him tormented and obsessed. Promises to "rise early," to "bid farewell to sloth," are matched in frequency only by complaints of drowsiness, inertia, "a kind of strange oblivion," "sluggishness." Johnson, fending off sleep with prodigious amounts of tea (he was known to drink as many as twenty-four cups in one sitting), would remain wakeful until three or four, at which time one finds him composing anguished prayers, resolving to, among other things, rise at 8 A.M., "Eight being the latest hour to which Bedtime can be properly extended." His resolve to rise at eight rarely held, a failure that occasioned deep and considerable guilt, and for which he prayed for expiation. Johnson's life was rounded not by sleep, but by insomnia and remorse, the alpha and omega of his tedious nights. "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," Johnson famously remarked to Boswell, "for there is in London all that life can afford." Johnson, generalizing from his own experience, normalizes the condition of fatigue: "tired of life" becomes a category needing no explanation. In point of fact, the man who is tired of London has, like Johnson, probably been up all night.
In his Epistle to Fortesque, Alexander Pope, born in 1688, writes:
I cannot sleep a wink.
I nod in company, I wake at night
Fools rush into my Head, and so I write.
Charmed by Pope's urbanity, readers may not take his claims seriously, though evidence abounds to support them. Pope often nodded among guests, and once "slumbered at his own table" Johnson tells us in his Life of Pope, "while the Prince of Wales was talking to him of poetry." And surely there have been few great poets as touchy or peevish. His description of Grub Street hacks seems applicable to himself:
And pensive poets painful vigils keep
Sleepless themselves to give their readers sleep.
Pope typically wrote in bed, scratching out heroic couplets on the backs of envelopes till the early hours of the morning, and constantly demanding more coffee from his nodding servant. Insomnia saturates his work, most famously in The Dunciad, a dark and ironic celebration of the collapse of the Renaissance humanist tradition. The poem satirizes the increasing specialization of scholarly and scientific thought and the fragmentation of human knowledge that attends such specialization; for Pope, a coherent view of the divine universe no longer seemed possible. Instead, there is "dullness," and the controlling metaphor for such dullness was, for Pope, profound sleepiness. Pope presents, with brilliant crabbiness, the spectacle of a sleepless culture muddling its way toward modernity. The "heroic" action of the poem consists in sleepiness spreading over London like a plague until the presiding Goddess of Dullness herself nods off in the middle of her own oration:
More had she spoke, but yawned-All Nature nods:
What mortal can resist the Yawn of Gods?
And with the famous apocalyptic utterance closing the 1743 edition of the poem, Pope draws the curtain on the Renaissance:
Thy Hand, great Anarch! Lets the Curtain fall,
And Universal Darkness buries all.
Pope makes brilliant use of daytime drowsiness as a metaphor for cultural collapse; looking at London life at this time, one can see it was a metaphor that must have come easily to hand. Pope's other major poem, The Rape of the Lock, opens with the beautiful nymph, Belinda, unable to raise her head from the pillow, though noon approaches. Oblivious to the stirring household-the ringing bell, the slipper pounded on the floor-she sleeps until her dog, "who thought she slept too long" wakes her with his tongue. At the heart of the poem is a remarkably beautiful fetishization of the coffee bean:
For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crowned,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp, the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
While China's Earth receives the smoking Tide.
At once they gratify their Scent and Taste,
And frequent Cups prolong the rich Repast
Coffee (which makes the politician wise,
And see through all things with his half-shut eyes)
Caffeine fuels insomnia as it simultaneously attempts to alleviate the symptoms; the ceremony of tea and coffee becomes, as here, highly ritualized. In the history of English literature, Pope is the first major writer to be addicted to caffeine.
But what of the joyous notes of J. S. Bach, the inquisitive reader asks, whose music embodies eighteenth-century culture and to which I am listening even as I write. In 1731 Bach composed Cantata 140, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme"-more popularly known as "Sleepers, Awake"-based on the parable from Matthew of the ten virgins and their lamps. "Watch, therefore" the parable concludes, "for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh." The dramatic urgency of the cantatas two recitatives, often commented upon, seemingly reflects a new conception of time as something that spends itself out, never to return again; biblical texts enjoining one to be vigilant or to redeem the time are interpreted with increasing literalness after 1660 and the so-called revolution in time. In 1732, the year after "Sleepers, Awake," Bach composed the "Coffee Cantata," a one-act comic opera drawing on the fears of many (though not Bach) that coffee, introduced to Germany in 1670, by displacing beer as the national beverage, was undermining German culture. In the opera, an uncaffeinated father mockingly named "Slowpoke" threatens his daughter with a forced marriage if she doesn't give up her coffee habit. Four years later Bach composes "The Goldberg Variations," a work commissioned by Count von Kaiserling. The Count, a sleeper only too awake, wanted music that, if it didn't induce sleep, would at least alleviate the tediousness of lying awake all night. One traces in Bach the abridgement of human sleep, or what might be termed the invention of insomnia. The word insomnia itself, according to the OED, appears in England in 1758. Interestingly, Johnson did not include the word in his Dictionary, preferring as he did, the more clinical Nox insomnis, a phrase that occurs countless times in his diary.
The history of sleep, like a flounder lying motionless in shallow water, remains imperceptible until one stares for a long time, and then suddenly the strange, imponderable outline appears, something out of a surrealist dream. It disturbs the imagination. Why, one asks, has this pandemic of sleep deprivation remained invisible to scholars? With what sort of evidence can one construct the history of human sleep-where is the flounder? Where is Coleridge's flower?
Commenting on the erratic sleep and daytime drowsiness one finds in Johnson's diaries, the editor, the distinguished Johnsonian E. L. McAdam, writes, "it seems likely that he got quite enough sleep at one time or another for an average man of fifty-six." Just what constitutes "enough sleep" for the average fifty-six-year-old, McAdam doesn't say, but if we measure the eighteenth century by our own standards, their sleep patterns may indeed seem "average." In part, we fail to notice the reeling sleeplessness of eighteenth-century London because that society so closely resembles our own. Contemporary culture suffers from catastrophic sleep loss. We live and work in a sleep-sick society, and symptoms of sleep deprivation-boredom, listlessness, hopelessness, to name but a few-pass as situation normal. Lack of sleep may not be the primary cause of despair or depression, but it rarely helps matters. The unexamined assumption that sleep deprivation begins with Edison and the spread of electricity obscures sleep's role in history, just as sleep's everydayness obscures its profound significance-a scholar might as well study, one assumes, the history of breathing.
Given the subjective nature of sleep, one might also think sleep deprivation a difficult state to define, particularly for the historian. The moral value of sleep-or sleeplessness-further clouds the issue. Diverse and wide-ranging clinical studies, however, keep arriving at the same place: eight hours of sleep a night, on average, is our evolutionary benchmark. If we habitually receive less than this, odds are we will feel weary or stale, manie or anxious, on edge, flat, forlorn, uninspired, and more than likely we will never connect our varying moods to our lack of sleep: Why should we, given a world abounding in more interesting (and often compelling) causes for spiritual malaise? This dissociation of mind from body seems crucial in understanding sleep deprivation and its strange history: people rarely connect curtailed sleep with mood, even though mood deteriorates first. The complex physiology of sleep is not fully understood, yet we know that denying the body of eight hours sleep, segmented or otherwise, denies a birthright millions of years in the making. Human beings, of course, have adapted to much shorter sleep regimens, turning caffeine into our fetish of choice. But such adaptations take their toll, particularly on one's spirit.
Direct evidence, such as notations in a diary, that an individual slept fewer than eight hours a night are not easy to come by; usually one finds only half of the equation, either time of retirement or time of rising. John Rutty, M.D., a Dublin Quaker, kept "A Spiritual Diary" from 1753 to 1764, noting his time of rising as well as his vicissitudes of mood. He frequently rose quite early, "on principle"-and it is clearly a moral principle-to work on his grandly conceived Natural History of the City of Dublin, once at 1 A.M., more typically at three or four. Failure to rise this early leads to self-condemnation: "indulgence in bed an hour too long," "lay late sinfully," "Eight in the morning. O the time lost in bed!" Such struggles with sleep might pass unnoticed were he not so crabby. He complains of "unbridled choler," "fierceness," "snappishness" "brittleness," of being "mechanically dull, listless, cross," of being "an inflammable jack-straw, quick to anger, consequently not a child of God, or at least a perverse one." Sleepiness assaults him during prayer meetings, where he fights to stay awake, wrestling with a drowsiness that comes, he is certain, directly from Satan. That he might need more sleep never occurs to him. Such a suggestion would be tantamount to endorsing sloth.
Sleep apnea used to be known as the Pickwickian Syndrome, a reference to Joe, "the fat boy" forever falling asleep in Dickens s The Pickwick Papers. If difficulty in rising from bed ever achieves syndrome status, and well it might, perhaps it will be named after Proust, who once developed a scheme for living on a boat, an arrangement that would obviate the need, he thought, of ever having to get out of bed. Difficulty in rising (under normal circumstances) can often serve as an index for sleep deprivation, clinically as well as historically, though it is a feature of life so common as to be often overlooked. Pope's Belinda, in The Rape of the Lock, has already been mentioned. The Independent Divine and great hymn writer, Isaac Watts, composed a religious song for children called "The Sluggard" (1715), in which we learn, with considerable attention paid to small details, about a man who simply cannot roll himself out of bed. James Thomson, in "Spring" (1727), revisits Adam and Eves first morning in paradise as described by Milton, but cannot forbear making remarks about sluggards-that species of drone that had recently appeared on earth who perversely fail to spring to their feet at the sacred dawn s approach. These writers are responding, morally and religiously, to a new phenomenon, namely sleeping in; the disruption of traditional sleep patterns has led to the encroachment of sleep into normal waking hours, and thus violates the emerging Protestant ethic.
The prize for sleeping late, however, must go to Boswell, who-up all night writing in his journal or engaged in various forms of dissipation-found mornings an incomprehensible ordeal. "I awaked as usual," he writes in his journal on 6 May 1763, "heavy, confused, and splenetic. Every morning this is the case with me." Boswell is twenty-two years old. Three days prior to this, suffering from insomnia, he asked his barber to read to him, who, however skilled in the art of bleeding, pulling teeth, or shaving, could not quite get his mouth around the cadences of Hume's History of England. A sorry business this-Boswell "lay in sad concern." Thirteen years later, still complaining, Boswell brings up the subject with Johnson, who tells him of the "learned Mrs. Carter" and her marvelous invention, a contrivance of strings, dead weights, and candles, designed to wake one up. But the problem for Boswell is getting out of bed. Surely there must be
some medicine invented which would make one rise without pain, which I never did, unless after lying in bed a very long time. Perhaps there may he something in the stores of Nature which could do this. I have thought of a pulley to raise me gradually; but that would give me pain, as it would counteract my natural inclination. I would have something that can dissipate the vis inertiae, and give elasticity to the muscles. As I imagine the human body may be put, by the operation of other substances, into any state which it has ever been; and as I have experienced a state in which rising from bed was not disagreeable, but easy, nay, sometimes agreeable; I suppose that this state may be produced, if we knew by what. We can heat the body, we can cool it; we can give it tension or relaxation; and surely it is possible to bring it into a state in which rising from bed will not be a pain.
When one lies in bed for a "very long time," rising is easy, even agreeable, this Boswell knows; yet we find him casting about for some drug or mechanical operation to dissolve the strange and mysterious fatigue that keeps him weighted down in bed. He seems oblivious to the fact that he may simply need more sleep; such blindness would seem extraordinary did one not encounter it every day. In January of 1763, Boswell, under treatment for "venereal complaints," underwent five weeks of enforced seclusion. At first apprehensive and deeply melancholic at being cut off from London night life, he soon grows quite content with the new regimen, which involves going to bed "between eleven or twelve" and rising "excellently well" at about eight. His mood is easy, relaxed, and cheerful: "In short," he writes, "I am at present a genius." Ironically, and quite unexpectedly, these five weeks of treatment turn out to be the happiest of an otherwise melancholic year. The cure over, Boswell returns to his nocturnal activities, and is plagued once again with insecurities and despair.
One final type of evidence indicating a society-wide disruption in traditional sleep patterns is the appearance of daytime drowsiness as a cultural phenomenon. To fall asleep during the day, especially while engaged in routine activities, is a fairly clear indication that a person is not getting enough sleep (to say nothing of falling asleep in nonroutine situations, such as when the Prince of Wales is talking to you, or-as happened to Johnson-while riding a horse). William Hogarth's prints show people falling asleep at all times of day, in all positions-at the reins of a wagon, behind a loom, at levees, on the judicial bench, under bulkheads, and-most commonly-in pews. People have always slept in church, no doubt, but in the eighteenth century one sees entire congregations, or nearly so, slumbering away. John Donne, preaching at St. Paul's in London at the beginning of the seventeenth century, on two different occasions uses his sermons to upbraid the behavior of his congregation, and on neither occasion does he mention sleeping in church. Jonathan Swift, preaching at St. Patrick's in Dublin at the beginning of the eighteenth century, devotes an entire sermon to the subject. Pope described a sleeping congregation in book 2 of The Dunciad:
At ev'ry line they stretch, they yawn, they doze.
As to soft gales top-heavy pines bow low
Their heads, and lift them as they cease to blow:
Thus oft they rear, and oft the head decline,
As breathe, or pause, by fits, the airs divine.
And now to this side, now to that they nod,
As verse, or prose, infuse the drowzy God.
This description was echoed by the Anglican priest and poet Charles Churchill in 1765: "Sleep at my bidding crept from pew to pew."
Historians of theology have used sleeping congregations as indicative of the decline of preaching in eighteenth-century England, but this seems too simple an explanation. A boring sermon in and of itself will not put one to sleep unless one is lacking in sleep; and if one is struggling to stay awake, almost any sermon, or lecture, will seem boring. It is only the rare preacher-like Swift-who feels inspired to eloquence by the sight of a sleeping audience.
The clergy, used to a different type of outbreak, having witnessed ravages of plague and fire, must have regarded the vague, lugubrious stares of their sleepy congregations, the sounds of heads falling against pews, as the height of an immoral resignation to sloth. They responded disastrously; rather than encouraging people to amend their sleep habits, they attacked the activity of sleep itself, equating it with sloth. The most damning antisleep rhetoric issues from the pen of William Law, whose A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) reconfigured eighteenth-century piety. The book occasioned, according to Boswell's famous account, a transformation in Samuel Johnson's religious thought. Johnson told Boswell
When at Oxford, I took up Laws "Serious Call to a Holy Life," expecting to find it a dull book, (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion, after I became capable of rational enquiry.
Johnson was twenty years old; after this, Boswell remarks, "religion was the predominant object of his thoughts." On the subject of sleep, Law goes on at great length, in an often quite irritable tone:
sleep is the poorest, dullest refreshment of the body, that is so far from being intended as an enjoyment, that we are forced to receive it either in a state of insensibility, or in the folly of dreams.
Sleep is such a dull, stupid state of existence, that even amongst mere animals, we despise them most which are most drowsy.
He, therefore, that chooses to enlarge the slothful indulgence of sleep, rather than be early at his devotions to God, chooses the dullest refreshment of the body, before the highest, noblest employment of the soul; he chooses that state which is a reproach to mere animals, rather than that exercise which is the glory of Angels.
Turning his back on the Renaissance model, Law characterizes sleep as a state of insensibility, and having reduced sleep to mere sloth, must then, as corollary, denigrate dreams. The idea that an angel might appear in a dream is thoroughly rejected. Though later a student of mysticism, Law here shares the rationalism of his day, confidently sweeping the shards of the dreaming world into the dustbin of history. Law measures spiritual self-discipline on an index of denial, so though never specifying how many hours one should sleep, if one does not feel denied of rest, clearly one is getting too much. Such an outlook encourages a vicious circle: the more one denies oneself of sleep, the more one becomes a "slave to drowsiness." Such was the case with John Rutty, the terminally crabby Quaker who nonetheless found room in his Spiritual Diary for fulsome praise of Law's book. One sympathizes with Boswell's son who, in 1793, upon hearing his father read aloud from A Serious Call, observed, "Such books do a great deal of harm."
John Wesley, founder of Methodism and disciple of Law-though he later broke away-kept Law's spirit alive, most notably in his 1798 sermon "On the Duty and Advantages of Early Rising." Wesley believed that six hours of sleep a night was sufficient, dismissing one Bishop Taylor's figure of three hours per night, as well as Bishop Baxter's estimate of four, as extreme. Longer than this encourages nervous disorders: "By soaking. . .so long between warm sheets, the flesh is, as it were parboiled, and becomes soft and flabby. The nerves, in the mean time, are quite unstrung, and all the train of melancholic symptoms, faintness, tremors, lowness of spirits, so called, come on, till life itself is a burthen." Hoping to reach that state of wakeful vigor that allows for maximum productivity, Wesley paradoxically advises cutting back on sleep. Caffeine, of course, is essential to such a regimen (Wesley once commissioned Josiah Wedgewood to make him an oversized tea pot). By confounding symptoms of sleep deprivation (and perhaps excessive caffeine consumption) with sleeping longer than six hours, Wesley creates a religious climate in which sleep is categorically associated with sloth and sinful nonproductivity.
Daytime drowsiness, and such related moods as listlessness, indolence, and boredom, are familiar features of eighteenth-century literature in a way completely foreign to earlier literature; one might account for this generically: the metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century, for example, does not concern itself with the social surface in the way eighteenth-century verse does, and thus one does not find in such poetry scenes of people struggling with sleepiness. Furthermore, the novel, the genre most suited to describing domestic life, and thus most likely to describe people s sleep habits, did not come into prominence until the mid-eighteenth century. One might argue, then, that this apparent historical change in sleep patterns is more the result of a shift in literary focus rather than a change in actual practice. Yet if one looks at the genre of the country-house poem, the characteristics of which remain fairly stable over these two centuries, one sees the encroachment of drowsiness into places where it had not been before. Mary Leapors "Crumble Hall," written sometime around 1740, follows the manner of Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" (1616). Leapor describes a large Medieval hall-in fact, Edgcote House-though unlike Penshurst, Crumble Hall verges on collapse. In Jonson's poem no mention is made, not surprisingly, of sleep or sleepiness; in Leapor's poem, drowsiness seems to saturate the very fabric of the house. After pointing out "the lazy chair," which "To Sleep invite[s] the Weary, and the Fair," Leapor continues her description, moving first to the study where "Biron sleeps, with books encircled round," and then down to the kitchen (where she herself had worked as a maid):
With Mouth wide open, but with closing Eyes
Unwieldy Roger on the Table lies.
His able Lungs discharge a rattling Sound:
Prince barks, Spot howls, and the tall Roofs rebound.
Him Urs'la views; and, with dejected Eyes,
"Ah! Roger, Ah!" the mournful Maiden cries,
"Is wretched Urs'la then your Care no more,
That, while I sigh, thus you can sleep and snore?"
The "lazy chair" of which Leapor speaks, makes its debut, along with the "easy chair," in the early eighteenth century, a significant moment in the evolution of furniture. Prior to 1660, European chairs had all been rectilinear in design: a straight, flat back rises at a right angle from the horizontal seat. Though ornamentation varied, the design remained remarkably uniform, such chairs inviting neither the weary nor the fair to sleep. Not until the end of the seventeenth century does the revolutionary curvilinear chair, with its rounded back, appear. This innovation allowed for unprecedented comfort, and such designs as the Queen Anne wing chair, whose wings, it is generally and erroneously assumed, provide protection from drafts, have not been improved upon for almost three hundred years. The wing chair evolved from the short-lived "sleeping chair," circa 1675, a rectilinear design with an adjustable back that could be tilted at an angle; two movable wings could then be pulled up from the sides to form a boxlike structure in which one could nap. Besides its impossible ugliness, the "sleeping chair" lacks subtlety. The genius of the Queen Anne wing chair is that one may nap discretely and without fear of losing one's wig. The driving force in the evolution of comfortable chairs was not draftiness but drowsiness-the need to accommodate a culture suffering from an overwhelming lack of sleep. Fittingly, the first appearance of the wing chair in formal portraiture, so far as I can tell, occurs in 1714 in a painting by Charles Jervas of a languid, somewhat pensive, Alexander Pope.
Perhaps the most explicit account of this historical change in sleep patterns comes from Richard Steele, late of the Coldstream Guards, now turned "Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., Censor of Great Britain," cranking out The Tatler three times a week to keep his creditors at bay. On 14 December 1710, we find him ruminating on the strange paring down of night, a phenomenon of interest to anyone on the lam:
It is very plain that the night was much longer formerly in this island than it is at present. By the night I mean that portion of time which nature has thrown into darkness and which the wisdom of mankind had formerly dedicated to rest and silence. This used to begin at eight o'clock in the evening, and conclude at six in the morning. The curfew, or eight o'clock bell, was the signal throughout the nation for putting out their candles and going to bed.
Our Grandmothers, though they were wont to sit up the last in the family, were all of them fast asleep at the same hours that their daughters are busy at crimp and basset . . . . All business is driven forward: the landmarks of our fathers (if I may so call them) are removed, and planted further up into the day; insomuch that I am afraid our clergy will be obliged (if they expect full congregations) not to look anymore upon ten o'clock in the morning as a canonical hour. In my own memory the dinner has crept by degrees from twelve o'clock to three, and where it will fix nobody knows.
Steele recalls night before the advent of mechanical clocks-ten hours of communal rest and silence rounded by the tolling bell. Time had not yet become a personal possession. The abbreviated night undermines morning religious devotions-odd that he should notice-though another half century of haranguing absent or sleeping parishioners ensued before the Methodists inaugurated evening service. And odder yet, for one so worldly, Steele observes a relation between long nights and spiritual joy: "When I find myself awakened into being, and perceive my life renewed within me, and at the same time see the whole face of nature recovered out of the dark uncomfortable state in which it lay for several hours, my heart overflows with such secret sentiments of joy and gratitude as are a kind of implicit praise to the great Author of Nature." To one who has slept well, morning reeriacts the creation of the world, and rising becomes a form of gratitude, if not an act of prayer. In closing, Steele turns to the last pinnacle of the English Renaissance, Paradise Lost, and quotes Adam's awakening of Eve in Eden, a passage "above all commendation, and rather to be admired than praised."
Milton kept Renaissance hours, routinely going to bed at nine o'clock. God doth not expect day labor light denied.
Steele's essay is an elegy for sleep, an elegy for the vanquished dark, and ultimately a mere exercise in nostalgia, for the long, slow depths of night had vanished. A shift in the perception of time, a steady diet of caffeine, the habit of nocturnal reading-it adds up to the death of sleep, at least as the old culture knew it. No more the long night s journey into day. With the disruption of traditional sleep patterns, a complicated and interrelated chain of events was set in motion that left society reeling with sleeplessness. The clergy responded by attacking sleep itself, equating it with the sin of sloth, an attack congenial to the spirit of capitalism, which viewed the night as profitable territory-by midcentury one could attend a play or concert every night of the week, and if one lingered on the way home, very likely pass laborers on their way to work at four in the morning. The development of a new clock-based time-discipline and its impact on the spread of capitalism has been well documented; not fully appreciated, however, is the essential role caffeine and altered sleep patterns played in this transformation of society. As productivity became the watchword, sleep came to epitomize waste. With the death of sleep comes the necessary trivialization of dreaming-if prophetic dreams survive the eighteenth century, they do so as part of "low" culture. A vital link to the spiritual world is severed.
Vittore Carpaccio's "The Dream of St. Ursula" painted in 1495, shows an angel appearing to the saint in a dream. The angel, warning against marriage, though clearly a figure in a dream, seems no less real than Ursula herself. The painter makes no distinction between the dreaming and waking world; in a culture that values sleep, such boundaries seem indistinct, if not irrelevant. One notes the rectilinear chair, as well as the position of the desk in the corner, away from the bed. No candles adorn the headboard. Above all, one notes the deep and restful repose of Saint Ursula, her hand thoughtfully on her cheek as she listens to the angel. Sleep is a blessing, a gift from God. To be cut off from that gift is to feel forsaken indeed.