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"Insomnia", par Edward Thomas

"I wake before dawn, and then, much as I desire sleep, I cannot have it. I am now the prey of anything but sleep, anything real or unreal that comes to sight, touch, or hearing, or straight to the brain."


Texte d'Edward Thomas écrit en 1911, publié pour la première fois en 1928 dans The Last Sheaf. Ici tiré de Selected Poems and Prose, 1981.

Text written by Edward Thomas in 1911, first published in The Last Sheaf (1928), quoted here in Selected Poems and Prose (1981).

Night after night deliberately we take upon ourselves the utmost possible weakness, because it is the offering most acceptable to sleep. Our thick coverings give us warmth without need of motion. The night air we moderate into a harmless rustling or stroking coolness ; or, if it be an obstreperous air, we may shut it out altogether, and with it all sounds. We choose to be alone, and in darkness. We make ourselves so weak, so easy, so content with nothing, that scarce anything but personal danger, and that immediate and certain, could stir us. Thus cunningly we oppose the utmost possible weakness to the assault of sleep.

Sometimes I have a lighted candle and a book at my bedside, but seldom for more than five minutes. The light and the effort of reading, though I may have gone early to bed, are too much for my instinctive weakness, this religious malingering. I find that I desire to enter without gradation into perfect helpless, and I exercise a quiet resolution against the strains even of memory. For once I have lain down, safe, warm, and unanxious, nothing I can remember is worthy for more than a moment to interrupt. In this weakness there is a kind of power. Still and relaxed, as it were lacking bones and muscles entirely, I lie in a composed eagerness for sleep. And most often sleep will stoop and swallow me up, and I have no more dream or trouble than a grain swallowed by a bird.

But the mighty weakness that so allures sleep is turned to a powerless strength during the night. I wake before dawn, and then, much as I desire sleep, I cannot have it. I am now the prey of anything but sleep, anything real or unreal that comes to sight, touch, or hearing, or straight to the brain. It seems that all night I have heard the poplars shivering across the street in the strong lamplight, with a high singing note like a flame instead of a noise of showers ; it seems that this shivering and this light will continue for ever, and for ever shall I lie restless under their afflictions. I strive, but no longer with unconscious power, to sink into the weakness that commands or deserves sleep. Any memory now can discompose me ; any face, any word, any event, out of the past has to be entertained for a minute or an hour, according to its will, not mine. Those poplar leaves in the bright street are mightier than I or sleep. In vain I seek the posture and simulate the gesture of an already favoured victim. I am too weak. I am too strong, yet I cannot rise and darken the room or go out and contemn sleep. It is a blessed thing if I am strong enough at last to wear myself out to sleep.

The other night I awoke just as the robin was beginning to sing outside in the dark garden. Beyond him the wind made a moan in the little fir-copse as of a forest in a space magically enclosed and silent, and in the intervals of his song silence fell about him like a cloak which the wind could not penetrate. As well as I knew the triple cry farther off for the crow of the first cock, I knew this for the robin's song, pausing but unbroken, though it was unlike any song of robin I had heard in daylight, standing or walking among trees. Outside, in the dark bush, to me lying prostrate, patient, unmoving, the song was absolutely monotonous, absolutely expressionless, a chain of little thin notes linked mechanically in a rhythm identical at each repetition. This was not the voluntary personal utterance of a winged sprite that I used to know, but a note touched on the instrument of night by a player unknown to me, save that it was he who delighted in the moaning fir-trees and in my silence. Nothing intelligible to me was expressed by it ; since he, the player, alone knew, I call it expressionless.

When the light began to arrive, the song in the enclosed hush, and the sound of the trees beyond it, remained the same. I remained awake, silently and as stilly as possible, cringing for sleep. I was an unwilling note on the instrument ; yet I do not know that the robin was less unwilling. I strove to escape out of that harmony of bird, wind, and man. But as fast as I made my mind a faintly heaving, shapeless, grey blank, some form or colour appeared ; memory or anticipation was at work.

Gradually I found myself trying to understand this dawn harmony. I vowed to remember it and ponder it in the light of day. To make sure of remembering I tried putting it into rhyme. I was resolved not to omit the date ; and so much so that the first line had to be "The seventh of September", nor could I escape from this necessity. Then September was to be rhymed with. The word "ember" occured and stayed ; no other would respond to my calling. The third and fourth lines, it seemed, were bound to be something like —

The sere and the ember Of the year and of me.

This gave me no satisfaction, but I was under a very strong compulsion. I could do no more ; not a line would add itself to the wretched three ; nor did they cease to return again and again to my head. It was fortunate for me as a man, if not as an unborn poet, that I could not forget the lines ; for by continual helpless repetition of them I rose yet once more to the weakness that sleep demanded. Gradually I became conscious of nothing but the moan of trees, the monotonous expressionless robin's song, the slightly aching body to which I was, by ties more and more slender, attached. I felt, I knew, I did not think that there would always be an unknown player, always wind and trees, always a robin singing, always a listener listening in the stark dawn : and I knew also that if I were the listener I should not always lie thus in a safe warm bed thinking myself alive... And so I fell asleep again on the seventh of September.


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