Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Irene and The Sleeper,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 179-189 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 179:]


The poem published in 1831 as “Irene”(1) was given considerable revision in 1836 and 1837. In 1841 Poe revised it again and changed its title to “The Sleeper.” He continued to work on it — he made minute changes in 1849 — but nothing was radically altered after March 1843. The differently titled versions have too much in common to be regarded as wholly distinct compositions.

Poe himself was well pleased with “The Sleeper.” He named it first in a list of his best poems in a letter of July 2, 1844, to J. R. Lowell. On December 15, 1846, he wrote to George W. Eveleth: “In the higher qualities of poetry, it is better than ‘The Raven’ — but there is not one man in a million who could be brought to agree with me in this opinion.” Killis Campbell (Poems, p. 212) quoted J. T. Trowbridge, who in My Own Story (1902), p. 184, considered Poe's poem “The Sleeper” to be “the most strikingly beautiful of all the productions of that aberrant genius.” But Poe's most sincere admirers find only particular passages to praise.(2)

Poe's interest in the death of beautiful women is too well [page 180:] known to need much comment. “Irenë” and “The Sleeper” are based in part on a commonplace of romantic subject matter, the fair lady who will never awaken. It seems probable that the poem was inspired by the verses of an extremely minor contemporary. In 1826 there appeared a little volume, Rufiana (New York, G. & C. Carvil), by William Rufus of Charleston, a decidedly obscure person. The chances that Poe, when he was at Fort Moultrie in 1827, would have seen a work issued only a year before by a local bard are very great. In the Rufus volume at pp. 27-29 there is the following poem:


His lady's name he breath’d in vain —

No signal could the Knight obtain —

And, pointing to the lake,

He wildly swept his lute again,

And sang a more appealing strain,

His lady, love, to wake.

“Oh, lady, from yon gloomy tower

The bell hath chim’d the midnight hour,

The moon sleeps on the lake;

Long have I loitered near thy bower

To free thee from thy tyrant's power,

Oh, lady, love, awake!

“The skiff awaits us in the bay,

The flapping sail reproves our stay

The steeds are o’er the lake;

Oh hear you not their distant neigh,

Impatient at our long delay?

Oh lady, love, awake!

“No taper from thy casement beams,

Nor snowy ’kerchief lightly streams

In signal t’wards the lake;

Oh, hark! the dismal night-bird screams

To rouse thee from thy lengthen’d dreams —

Oh, lady, love, awake!”

Nor lover's voice, nor flapping sail,

Nor neighing steeds, nor night-bird's wail,

The lady's dream can break,

Cold in her shroud, and ghastly pale,

She sleeps within the charnel rail,

No more on earth to wake! [page 181:]

These verses are mellifluous enough to have pleased Poe, and the poem is verbally closer to the earliest form of “Irenë” than to later texts.

With this commonplace story Poe combined that of the nucta, or magic drop that comes from the moon. He pretty surely took this from a note in Moore's Lalla Rookh: “The Nucta, or Miraculous Drop, which falls in Egypt precisely on St. John's Day, in June, and is supposed to have the effect of stopping the plague.” The circumstance is ironic; the lady died before St. John's Day, the twenty-fourth of June, ere the healing drop could save her.

Beneficent as the drop may be, it can also be harmful. There is a prominent allusion to this in Macbeth. William B. Hunter, Jr., argues convincingly in American Literature, March 1948 (20:55-57) that Shakespeare's passage is recalled in “The Sleeper,” which has the same metrical form as the scene (III, v, 23-29) where Hecate chants:

Upon the corner of the moon

There hangs a vaporous drop profound.

I’ll catch it ere it comes to ground;

And that, distill’d by magic sleights,

Shall raise such artificial sprites

As by the strength of their illusion

Shall draw him on to his confusion.(3)

Another source of the poems about Irenë has recently been found by the scholarly bookseller, J. J. Cohane, who has generously communicated it for use in the present edition. In an annual, The Anniversary; or, Poetry and Prose for MDCCCXXIX, edited by Allan Cunningham, issued in London and Philadelphia, there is a rather long poem called “Edderline's Dream,” by Professor [John] Wilson (the “Christopher North” of Blackwood's Magazine), which describes a fair sleeper who has a terrible dream (pp. 32-43), The more pertinent passages follow; Poe practically quoted some of the phraseology. [page 182:]

Therein is a lonesome room,

Undisturbed as some old tomb

That, built within a forest glen,

Far from feet of living men,

And sheltered by its black pine trees

From sound of rivers, lochs, and seas,

Flings back its arched gateway tall,

At times to some great funeral!

· · · · ·

Breathless as a holy shrine,

When the voice of psalms is shed!

And there upon her stately bed,

While her raven locks recline

O’er an arm more pure than snow ...

There sleeps in love and beauty's glow,

The high-born Lady Edderline.

· · · · ·

Another gleam! how sweet the while,

Those pictured faces on the wall ...

· · · · ·

Is the last convulsion o’er?

And will that length of glorious tresses,

So laden with the soul's distresses,

By those fair hands in morning light,

Above those eyelids opening bright,

Be braided nevermore?

No, the lady is not dead ...

· · · · ·

“O, Lady, this is ghastly rest!

“Awake! awake, for Jesus’ sake!”

The scene of the action is Castle Oban. The last couplet quoted is especially striking, and it will be noticed that Poe in later versions of the poem removed the echo. Poe's vast improvement in his use of what he took from the rather long and mediocre poem of Wilson hardly needs comment.



(A’) manuscript, about March 1832, written in the album of Sally Chevallie of Richmond; (A) Poems (1831), pp. 61-64; (B) Southern Literary Messenger, May 1836 (2:387-388); (C) manuscript, early 1837. This text (C) is the first piece written in the album of the Reverend Dr. John Collins McCabe, a minor poet of Richmond and a friend of Poe. On the verso of the printed title page of the album, McCabe wrote: “To / Original Contributors only — Those whose / writings are identified with the literature / of their Country, and whose Claims are / recognized by the Scholar, the Poet and / the Public — is this volume open / for Contributions. / The Owner / 1837.” Since Poe left Richmond around [page 183:] the beginning of February of that year, the manuscript can be closely dated. A copy of this version was printed in Armistead C. Gordon's Memories and Memorials of William Gordon McCabe (Richmond, 1925), I, 20-21; but a photocopy of the actual manuscript, made available by the courtesy of Mrs. William Gordon McCabe Jr., has now been collated. The earliest version (A) is followed, with the addition of diaereses in lines 13 and 24.

The Sleeper

(D) Philadelphia Saturday Chronicle, May 22, 1841; (E) R. W. Griswold, The Poets and Poetry of America (1842), p. 388; (F) Philadelphia Saturday Museum, March 4, 1843; (G) Broadway Journal, May 3, 1845 (1:278); (H) The Raven and Other Poems (1845), pp. 9-11; (J) J. Lorimer Graham copy of The Raven ... with corrections (1849); (K) Works (1850), II, 37-39. Poe's latest revision (J) is followed, with the addition of diaereses in lines 13 and 17.



’T is now (so sings the soaring moon)


Midnight in the sweet month of June,


When winged visions love to lie


Lazily upon beauty's eye,


Or worse — upon her brow to dance


In panoply of old romance,

Till thoughts and locks are left, alas!


A ne’er-to-be untangled mass.

An influence dewy, drowsy, dim,



Is dripping from that golden rim;

Grey towers are mouldering into rest,

Wrapping the fog around their breast:



Looking like Lethë, see! the lake


A conscious slumber seems to take,


And would not for the world awake:

The rosemary sleeps upon the grave —

The lily lolls upon the wave —


And million bright pines to and fro,

Are rocking lullabies as they go,



To the lone oak that reels with bliss,



Nodding above the dim abyss.

All beauty sleeps: and lo! where lies [page 184:]


With casement open to the skies,

Irenë, with her destinies!




Thus hums the moon within her ear,


“O lady sweet! how camest thou here?

“Strange are thine eyelids — strange thy dress!

“And strange thy glorious length of tress!


“Sure thou art come o’er far-off seas,


“A wonder to our desert trees!


“Some gentle wind hath thought it right

“To open thy window to the night,

“And wanton airs from the tree-top,

“Laughingly thro’ the lattice drop,



“And wave this crimson canopy,


“Like a banner o’er thy dreaming eye!


“Lady, awake! lady awake!


“For the holy Jesus’ sake!


“For strangely — fearfully in this hall


“My tinted shadows rise and fall!”


The lady sleeps: the dead all sleep —


At least as long as Love doth weep:


Entranc’d, the spirit loves to lie

As long as — tears on Memory's eye:



But when a week or two go by,


And the light laughter chokes the sigh,


Indignant from the tomb doth take


Its way to some remember’d lake,


Where oft — in life — with friends — it went


To bathe in the pure element,

And there, from the untrodden grass,

Wreathing for its transparent brow


Those flowers that say (ah hear them now!)

To the night-winds as they pass,


“Ai! ai! alas! — alas!”

Pores for a moment, ere it go,

On the clear waters there that flow,

Then sinks within (weigh’d down by wo)


Th’ uncertain, shadowy heaven below. [page 185:]

* * * * * *



The lady sleeps: oh! may her sleep

As it is lasting so be deep —


No icy worms about her creep:

I pray to God that she may lie

Forever with as calm an eye,



That chamber chang’d for one more holy —


That bed for one more melancholy.

Far in the forest, dim and old,

For her may some tall vault unfold,

Against whose sounding door she hath thrown,


In childhood, many an idle stone —


Some tomb, which oft hath flung its black


And vampyre-winged pannels back,


Flutt’ring triumphant o’er the palls

Of her old family funerals.


[page 186, continued:]


At midnight, in the month of June,

I stand beneath the mystic moon. [page 187:]

An opiate vapour, dewy, dim,

Exhales from out her golden rim,


And, softly dripping, drop by drop,

Upon the quiet mountain top,


Steals drowsily and musically

Into the universal valley.

The rosemary nods upon the grave;


The lily lolls upon the wave;


Wrapping the fog about its breast,


The ruin moulders into rest;


Looking like Lethë, see! the lake

A conscious slumber seems to take,


And would not, for the world, awake.


All Beauty sleeps! — and lo! where lies


Irenë, with her Destinies!

Oh, lady bright! can it be right —


This window open to the night?




The wanton airs, from the tree-top,

Laughingly through the lattice drop —


The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,

Flit through thy chamber in and out,

And wave the curtain canopy


So fitfully — so fearfully —



Above the closed and fringéd lid

’Neath which thy slumb’ring soul lies hid,

That, o’er the floor and down the wall,

Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall!



Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear?

Why and what art thou dreaming here?

Sure thou art come o’er far-off seas,


A wonder to these garden trees!

Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!



Strange, above all, thy length of tress,


And this all solemn silentness!

The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,

Which is enduring, so be deep! [page 188:]


Heaven have her in its sacred keep!



This chamber changed for one more holy,


This bed for one more melancholy,

I pray to God that she may lie


Forever with unopened eye,


While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!


My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,

As it is lasting, so be deep!



Soft may the worms about her creep!

Far in the forest, dim and old,


For her may some tall vault unfold —



Some vault that oft hath flung its black


And wingéd pannels fluttering back,

Triumphant, o’er the crested palls,

Of her grand family funerals —


Some sepulchre, remote, alone,


Against whose portal she hath thrown,

In childhood, many an idle stone —


Some tomb from out whose sounding door

She ne’er shall force an echo more,



Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!



It was the dead who groaned within.


[page 185, continued:]

VARIANTS [[For “Irenë”]]

Title:  Lady Irene (A’); Irene, the Dead (C)

1  ’T is now (so sings / I stand beneath (B); We stand beneath (C); Tis now — so sings the soaring moon — (A’)

2  Midnight in the sweet / At midnight in the (B, C)

3-8  Omitted (B, C)

4  beauty's / Beauty's (A’)

8  ne’er-to-be / ne’er to be (A’)

8  After this A inserts a new stanza:

The moon! the moon! who ever heard  

Unmov’d the magic of that word?

I heed not, gazing on thy ray,

Of what the bards about thee say,

But that from off the mountains crown,

Over hamlets — over halls —

Over waterfalls —

O’er the strange woods — o’er the sea —

Over the river far and free —

Into the vallies deep and brown

Thy floods so gorgeously roll down!

6  romance / Romance (A’)

10  that / yon (B); her (C)

13  see! the lake / (that dim lake!) (A’)

14  A conscious slumber seems to take / The waves a conscious slumber take (A’)

18  bright pines / cedars (B, C)

20  reels with bliss / nodding hangs (B, C)

21  Above yon cataract of Serangs (B, C)

23  With / Her (C)

23-24  Transposed (C)

25  For this is substituted in B, C:

And hark! the sounds so low yet clear,

(Like music of another sphere)

Which steal within the slumberer's ear,

Or so appear — or so appear!

26  camest / cam'st (A’)

31  gentle wind hath / spirit hath softly (A’)

35  this / the (C); after this line is added in B and C: So fitfully, so fearfully

36  Like / As (B); three added lines follow in B and C:

That o’er the floor, and down the wall,

Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall —

Then, for thine own all radiant sake

In this passage the manuscript C has:

That thro’ the floors

and: own beloved sake.

36-39  For these lines the manuscript Ahas only two lines:

“Like banners, o's thy dreaming eye

“Till wildly — feafully in this hall

37  Lady awake! awake! awake! (B); Lady awake! — lady awake! (C)

38  Omitted (B, C)

39-59  Omitted (B)

39-40  Omitted (C)

41  dead all / dead all (A’)

42  At least as long as Love doth weep / As long as Love doth mourn and weep (A’)

43  Entranc’d / Entranced (A’, C)

46-59  For these lines the manuscript Ahas only two lines:

Treadeth a pathway little known

To Heaven, disconsolate and alone.

48  Its way to Heav’n — and sorrow forsake (C)

49-59  Omitted (C)

60  oh! / O! (A’)

65  chang’d / changed (A’, B)

66-74  Omitted (A’)

72  vampyre-winged / vampire-wing-like (B, C)

73  Flutt’ring / Fluttering (B, C)

[page 188, continued:]

VARIANTS [[For “The Sleeper”]]

11  fog about its / mist about their (D); mist about its (E)

12  Grey towers are mouldering into rest (D)

13  Lethë / Lethé (D, F) [The diaeresis in our text is added editorially.]

16  Followed by: With casement open to the skies (D, E); (Her casement open to the skies) (F, G, H, K)

17  Irenë, with / Irené and (D); Irene and (E); Irené, with (F) [The diaeresis in our text is added editorially.]

19  window / lattice (D, E, F)

20-21  Omitted from D, E, F

26  fringéd / fringed (G, H, K)

33  these / our (E)

35  Stranger thy glorious length of tress (D, E)

36  this / thine (D)

39  Interchanged with 47 (E)

40  chamber / bed being (D, E); changed / chang’d (F)

41  bed / room (D, E)

43  unopened / uncloséd (D, E) [Poe wrote Griswold April 19, 1845, asking that in the new edition of Poets and Poetry of America this word be changed to unopen’d but since his text was stereotyped no change was made.]; unopen’d (F, G)

44  pale / dim (F, G, H, K); line omitted (E) [page 189:]

47  Interchanged with 39 (E)

4950  vault / tomb (D, E)

51  wingéd / wing-like (D, E); winged (G, H, K)

54  Some vault all haughtily alone (D)

57  From out whose hollow-sounding door (D); Some vault from out whose sounding door (E)

59  Thrilling / Nor thrill (D, E)

60  groaned / groan’d (E)

[page 186:]

NOTES [[For “Irenë”]]

13  Lethe is the river of Hades, to drink of which brings forgetfulness.

21  The Messenger variant (B) needs comment. A serang is a boatswain of a crew of lascars, hence a turbaned Eastern chief. In the 1831 version of “Tamerlane” Poe spoke of “sultan-like” pine trees.

25  The moon is not often thought of as humming. One suspects that Poe had in mind a Shakespearean parallel, though it is not about the moon. In Macbeth, III, vi, 41-42, a lord says: “The cloudy messenger turns his back / And hums, as who should say, ‘You’ll rue the time.’ ”

29  Compare “The City in the Sea,” line 39: “some far-off happier sea,” and “To F[rances],” lines 9-10: “far-off isle / In some tumultuous sea.”

45-46  This recalls Pope's “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady,” lines 55-58:

What tho’ no friends in sable weeds appear,

Grieve for an hour, perhaps, then mourn a year,

And bear about the mockery of woe

To midnight dances, and the public show?

47-49  For the idea of departed spirits dwelling in the clear water, compare Poe's early poem, “The Lake.”

53-55  The Greeks fancied they could see AI AI, the usual expression of wailing, on the flower that sprang from the blood of the beautiful Spartan youth Hyacinthus, after he was accidentally slain by Apollo. The story is told by Ovid, Metamorphoses, X, 162-219, and is familiar from the reference in Milton's “Lycidas” to “that sanguine flower inscribed with woe.” Poe used a different story about the hyacinth in “Al Aaraaf,” “To Helen,” and “To Zante.”

59  Some have compared a passage quoted by Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, chapter xx, from Wordsworth's Prelude, V, 387-388: “that uncertain heaven, received / Into the bosom of the steady lake.”

62  Campbell (p. 213) calls attention to Byron's Giaour, lines 945ff:

It is as if the dead could feel

The icy worm around them steal,

And shudder, as the reptiles creep.

71-72  Compare the phrase in “The Bargain Lost”: “a black, heavy and curiously-pannelled door.” Hervey Allen, Israfel (1926), I, 220-221, says that these and the following lines recall “some of the great family tombs on the plantations about Charleston, with the semi-feudal pomp that surrounds them.” He mentions as typical that at Middleton Gardens, near Charleston.

[page 189, continued:]

NOTES [[For “The Sleeper”]]

7-10  These lines and 22-29 were praised for “spirituality” in the London Foreign Quarterly Review, January 1844 (32:322).

20-29  In a review, “Longfellow's Poems,” in the Aristidean for April 1845, Poe cites what he thinks (less improbably than usual) was a borrowing in “Footsteps of Angels”:

And, like phantoms grim and tall,

Shadows from the fitful fire-light

Dance upon the parlor wall.

26  Campbell (Poems, p. 212) compared to this The Tempest, I, ii, 407: “The fringed curtains of thine eye.”

30-31  Compare “Fairy Land” [II] (version of 1831), lines 39-40; “Isabel! do you not fear / The night and the wonders here?”

47  The line was significantly changed in later versions from its earlier form (compare “Irenë,” line 62), perhaps to make the worm a mystic symbol of immortality. Nevertheless, the reviewer in the London Literary Gazette of January 1846 (p. 237) complained of it as “morbid,” as I think it is. See Edward H. Davidson, Poe (1957), p. 39, for a defense.

59  Doctrinally, we are all “children of sin,” for the sin of Adam and Eve makes us subject to mortality. No personal allusion seems probable here. See Genesis 3:3 and 19.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 179:]

1  Irene (Eir?n?) is the Greek personification of Peace. Although modern Americans who bear the name often rhyme it with Eileen, it is properly trisyllabic, as Poe makes it, and as it is pronounced in England. The Saturday Chronicle text of 1841 had an accent on the final e as well as an accent on the final e of Lethe. I have therefore felt justified in adding a diaeresis in our texts.

2  E. g., Quinn, pp. 184-185, who praises lines 12, 22, and 23, and says that “no defense can be made” for line 47.

[The following foonote appears at the bottom of page 181:]

3  Many editions of Macbeth carried the note, originally by George Steevens in his 1793 edition: “This vaporous drop seems to have been meant for the same as the virus lunare of the ancients, being a foam which the moon was supposed to shed on particular herbs, or other objects, when strongly solicited by enchantment.” Steevens refers to Lucan's Pharsalia, VI, 666, where the Fury Erictho uses this poison when it is shed during an eclipse.



TOM was unaware of the “Chevallie” manuscript, which had remained in the family until it was offered at auction by Bloomsbury (NY) on December 10, 2008, item 145. Poe's poem is undated, but falls between other material in the album of the date noted. The album passed through Elise Warwick Barksdale Wickham, a granddaughter, and was listed in 2008 only as “the property of a Southern lady.” It failed to reach the estimated price range of $100,000-200,000, and was thus unsold. If there were concerns about its authenticity, they were needless. It is important as a manuscript pre-dating the publication in 1831, and as providing a number of variants, including an entirely new stanza. It has been inserted above in the list of texts (for Irenë) and in the variants (for version A) as version A’.


[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Irene and The Sleeper)