Have insomnia? Blame the Romantic poets

Scientists still don't fully understand why and how insomnia strikes. But how we talk about the condition may be found in the works of those who first wrestled with the disorder frankly and openly: the poets of England's Romantic era.

18th century poetry captures the evolution of science’s changing understanding of insomnia

‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli (1781) captures angst of the artist’s tormented sleep — a phenomenon that was also captured by romantic poets of the era. (Wikimedia Commons)

**This episode originally aired December 22, 2017.

Every night, one out of seven of us has trouble falling and staying asleep.

While we usually think of insomnia as simply the prolonged inability to sleep, 'insomnia' is also a concept, with its own cultural history. 

Scientists still don't fully understand why and how insomnia strikes. But the basis of how we talk about the condition may be found in the works of those who first wrestled with the disorder frankly and openly: the poets of England's Romantic era, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

"What I hope to prove is that the Romantic period is the gestational period for insomnia, how we think about it culturally and medically," said Katie Hunt, who received her PhD in English from Queen's University in 2019. The title of her thesis is The Romantic Insomnia of John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

"So two nights passed: the night's dismay 
Saddened and stunned the coming day. 
Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me 
Distemper's worst calamity."

- excerpt from The Pains of Sleep, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Hunt's studies of English poets of the Romantic period she zeros in on references to sleep, or lack thereof. By tying references like "anguish and agony" of the "unfathomable hell within," with her readings of medical texts and historical accounts from that period she reveals how the poems reflect a major shift in how insomnia was understood.

"It's the period when insomnia started to be recognized as a disorder in and of itself, not associated with pain or melancholy," said Hunt. "When insomnia started to change in the medical community, it started to change in the poetic community."

One of the poets she studies is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who writes of the 'anguish' and 'agony' of sleeplessness.

"There are accounts in his notebooks of him weeping until he falls asleep. And waking up and screaming," says Hunt.

In her research she's come across poems by John Keats, Charlotte Smith and William Woodsworth who also agonize about their lack of sleep and beg to be saved from the torments of a sleepless night.

Satan, bedbugs and other threats to sleep 300 years ago

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, sleeplessness was largely the result of uncontrollable discomforts — both real and imagined.

"There were any number of threats to peaceful repose," said Roger Ekirch, a historian at Virginia Tech University.

"Illness kept many people awake at night — the cold, the heat, the unholy trinity of early modern entomology: lice, fleas and bedbugs, and that's just the beginning. Most homes rattled in a breeze and never were people more vulnerable to [fears of] Satanic demons."

A painting by  Henry Fuseli called The Night-Hag
Prior to the Industrial Revolution sleep would regularly be broken by physical annoyances like rats and bedbugs, as well as imagined ghostly threats like pictured in The Night-Hag by Henry Fuseli. (Henry Fuseli via Wikimedia Commons)

Ekirch's research reveals that, more than 300 years ago, it was normal for people to take two sleeps in the night, with a space of time in the middle of the night to do household chores, have sex, or pray.

By the time the Romantics were writing, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Fears of ghosts and goblins dissipated, but the pressure for productivity was on the rise.

"People became increasingly time-conscious," said Ekirch. "They became obsessed with productivity and profit."

Industry, information and insomnia

In the 21st century's Information Age, we're experiencing a "culture of insomnia," according to the late writer, artist, and poet R.M. Vaughan.

"We've naturalized insomnia and I would say we've valorized insomnia. People boast about it, connecting to late capitalism's idea that we are in a total state of productivity," said Vaughan, author of Bright Eyed: Insomnia and its Cultures.

"We've created a dialogue in our heads that sleep is a kind of luxury. We're expected to be on call 24/7."

Guests in this episode: 

  •  Katie Hunt earned her PhD in English Language and Literature at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Her supervisor is Christopher Fanning.
  • Dr. Helen Driver is the manager of the Sleep Disorders Laboratory and the EEG and EMG Departments at Kingston General Hospital and Queen's University. She is also a past president of the Canadian Sleep Society. 
  • Sandra Huber is a poet and an assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Practices in Fine Arts at Concordia University. In 2010 she spent nine months as a poet-in-residence at a sleep laboratory in Switzerland as part of the Artists in Labs program. From that experience she wrote Assembling the Morrow: a Poetics of Sleep.
  • Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. His groundbreaking book on night-time and sleep habits of the pre-industrial era is called At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.
  • R.M. Vaughan was a writer, poet, and video artist. His book on contemporary sleeplessness is called Bright Eyed: Insomnia and its Cultures. He died in October, 2020.

** This episode is part of our ongoing IDEAS from the Trenches series. It was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. 

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