Sleep Is Supposed to Be, Emily Dickinson: Summary & Analysis

In "Sleep Is Supposed to Be," Emily Dickinson engages with themes of sleep, dawn, and the passage of time. The poem explores the shifting perspectives and interpretations of sleep and morning, weaving together imagery of sleep as a shutting eye and morning as a breaking day. Through evocative language and metaphors, Dickinson delves into the nuanced ways in which individuals perceive and anticipate these concepts.

Sleep Is Supposed to Be

Sleep is supposed to be,
By souls of sanity,
The shutting of the eye.
Sleep is the station grand
Down which on either hand
The hosts of witness stand !
Morn is supposed to be,
By people of degree,
The breaking of the day.
Morning has not occurred !
That shall aurora be
East of eternity ;
One with the banner gay,
One in the red array, —
That is the break of day.


"Sleep Is Supposed to Be" by Emily Dickinson contemplates the concepts of sleep and dawn. The poem explores the differing interpretations and expectations associated with sleep and morning. It presents sleep as a closing of the eyes and a grand station where hosts of witnesses stand. Morning, however, is described as yet to occur, with aurora to come east of eternity. The poem underscores the shifting perceptions of sleep and morning, playing with conventional understandings of these concepts.

Critical Analysis

"Sleep Is Supposed to Be" demonstrates Emily Dickinson's unique ability to challenge conventional notions through her use of language and imagery. The poem presents a dichotomy between sleep and morning, using imagery that simultaneously adheres to and subverts common interpretations of these concepts.

The poem begins by stating that sleep is "supposed to be" the closing of the eye. This presents a straightforward notion of sleep as the act of shutting one's eyes. However, the phrase "By souls of sanity" introduces an element of subjectivity, suggesting that the interpretation of sleep may vary among individuals, particularly those considered sane. The concept of sleep as a "station grand" with "hosts of witness" positions sleep as a significant state where observations are made, perhaps alluding to dreams or unconscious thoughts.

The poem then transitions to the interpretation of morning. While morning is typically perceived as the breaking of the day, Dickinson shifts the perspective by asserting that morning has not yet occurred. Instead, she introduces the idea that "aurora" will occur "east of eternity." This unexpected imagery challenges conventional understandings, suggesting that the true break of day is beyond the realm of human comprehension or conventional time.

The phrases "One with the banner gay" and "One in the red array" evoke imagery of colorful banners and garments associated with morning or dawn. However, these descriptions are situated within the realm of the unknown and the transcendent ("east of eternity"), adding an air of mystery and transcendence to the break of day.


  • Perceptions of Time: The poem explores the shifting perceptions and interpretations of time, particularly in relation to sleep and morning. The concept of time is presented as fluid and subjective, challenging conventional understandings.
  • Uncertainty and Mystery: The poem engages with the idea of uncertainty and mystery, particularly in its portrayal of morning as an event that occurs beyond the realm of human experience ("east of eternity"). This concept adds an element of enigma to the break of day.
  • Subjectivity and Interpretation: The poem suggests that the interpretations of sleep and morning can vary among individuals. The phrase "By souls of sanity" introduces subjectivity into the understanding of these concepts, emphasizing individual perspectives.


  • Curiosity and Wonder: The poem conveys a sense of curiosity and wonder regarding the concepts of sleep and morning. The unconventional interpretations and imagery reflect a curiosity about the nature of these experiences beyond their conventional definitions.
  • Transcendence: The description of the break of day occurring "east of eternity" implies a sense of transcendence, suggesting that the true nature of morning is beyond human understanding and ordinary time.


  • Imagery: The poem employs vivid imagery to convey unconventional interpretations of sleep and morning. The imagery of sleep as a "shutting of the eye" and morning occurring "east of eternity" adds depth and complexity to the concepts.
  • Metaphor: The poem uses metaphorical language to challenge conventional notions. The comparison of sleep to a "station grand" and morning to an event "east of eternity" introduces metaphorical interpretations of time and experience.

Literary Devices

  • Paradox: The poem contains paradoxical elements that challenge conventional understandings. The description of morning as not having occurred yet, and the assertion that morning will be "east of eternity," introduces paradoxical notions that intrigue and engage the reader.
  • Irony: The poem contains an element of irony in its unconventional interpretations of sleep and morning. The irony lies in the unexpectedness of the interpretations and the tension between conventional and unconventional meanings.

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