Sleeping Outdoors

Istvan Csok, “Hay-making”


Ben Shattuck of Literary Hub has written a nice essay about “the unexpected poetry of sleeping outside.” Shattuck finds wilderness napping so attractive that he wonders why Robert Frost didn’t take a nap when he stopped by the woods on a snowy evening.

Check out the essay to get the full flavor of the experience. I want to emphasize here how Shattuck’s familiarity with poetry enhances the experience. Sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be half as meaningful if Shattuck didn’t have poetic frameworks within which to process it.

Shattuck finds a couple of poems which mention sleeping out aside. One of them, not surprisingly, is Whitman’s Song of the Open Road:

Now I see the secret of making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

There is also Mary Oliver’s “Sleeping in the Forest”:

I thought the earth remembered me,
She took me back so tenderly
Arranging her skirts
Her pockets full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before
A stone on the riverbed,
Nothing between me and the white fire of the stars,
But my thoughts.
And they floated light as moths
Among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
Breathing around me.
The insects and the birds
Who do their work in darkness.
All night I rose and fell,
As if water, grappling with luminous doom.

Oliver has a number of poems where she imagines merging with the landscape (and sometimes the sea as in “The Fish”) in a numinous experience. In “Sleeping in the Forest,” the joining of stars, sky, and ocean may owe something to Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”:

And in the trembling blue-green of the sky   
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell   
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell   
About the stars and broke in days and years.

Shattuck observes,

I’m sure the landscape affects us in ways likely more powerful than we realize—because it is a magnetism easily felt on the edge of consciousness, I’ve found. 

He also takes the experience of sleeping beside a poet’s grave to revisit his poetry, even though the poems don’t specifically mention outdoor napping. This does not matter, however, as the point of the exercise is opening up the subconscious mind, and John O’Donohue definitely has something to say about that:

The week before arriving in Wales I woke beside Irish poet John O’Donohue’s grave, way out in the west, where it’s all wind and sky and the sound of wild sea. “To live in a valley is to enjoy a private sky,” O’Donohue wrote of his home. Two old men were standing over me when I opened my eyes. “Oh!” one of them had gasped, holding up his hands. “I thought we’d found a body. Just practicing, are you?” O’Donohue, who described death as “a presence who walks the road of life with you,” would have liked the man’s phrasing, I think. To practice in and with death. “On your own,” O’Donohue wrote in his book on Celtic spirituality, Anam Cara, “or with others, it is always there with you. When you were born, it came out of the womb with you; with the excitement at your arrival, nobody noticed it. Though his presence surrounds you, you may still be blind to its companionship. The name of this presence is death.”

This joining of sleep and death brought to mind another Robert Frost poem, which has an image that my wife and I turned to the night that her father died. It’s from “After Apple Picking”:

But I am done with apple-picking now. 
Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 
I got from looking through a pane of glass 
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough 
And held against the world of hoary grass. 
It melted, and I let it fall and break. 
But I was well 
Upon my way to sleep before it fell… 

At the end of the poem, Frost wonders about the nature of this sleep:

One can see what will trouble 
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 
Were he not gone, 
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 
Or just some human sleep. 

Since he’s in Wales, Shattuck takes occasion to reflect upon Dylan Thomas, especially the snow scenes in Child’s Christmas in Wales. That poem has little to do with sleeping outdoors, however, and I’m surprised that Shattuck didn’t tap into the wondrous sleep images in “Poem in October,” where the poet describes awaking to a luminous landscape, or “Fern Hill,” where he imagines riding with the owls as he falls asleep:

     And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
     Flying with the ricks, and the horses
          Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
     Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
          The sky gathered again
     And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
     Out of the whinnying green stable
          On to the fields of praise.

The essay ends on a lovely note. By sleeping outdoors, Shadduck says, he more fully absorbs the landscape:

I woke in Wales. The land had filled with snow, the sky cleared of it. A singer of old American ballads once told me that after you learn a song you must sleep at least once before you perform it. To really know it, you have to let your dreams take hold of it, he said. Let it seep into your subconscious. Walking away from the ledge, I was thankful for the tiredness that had come—it did feel like I learned the landscape’s song a little better.

Without poetry, sleep—whether indoors or outside—is just sleep.

This entry was posted in Frost (Robert), O'Donohue (John), Oliver (Mary), Thomas (Dylan), Whitman (Walt), Yeats (William Butler) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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