Thursday 8 March 2018

Sleeping in the Top of the Mast

Dipping into A Short History of Drunkenness, an amusing little book I was given at Christmas, I came across an image that rang a bell – 'one who lies at the top of the mast'. The author, Mark Forsyth, was quoting a description of habitual drunkenness in the Book of Proverbs, and I was thinking of the line from John Bunyan that stands as the epigraph to Elizabeth Bishop's enigmatic poem The Unbeliever

'He sleeps on the top of a mast' – Bunyan 

He sleeps on the top of a mast 
with his eyes fast closed. 
The sails fall away below him 
like the sheets of his bed, 
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper's head. 

Asleep he was transported there, 
asleep he curled 
in a gilded ball on the mast's top, 
or climbed inside 
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride. 

"I am founded on marble pillars," 
said a cloud. "I never move. 
See the pillars there in the sea?" 
Secure in introspection 
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection. 

A gull had wings under his 
and remarked that the air 
was "like marble." He said: "Up here 
I tower through the sky 
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly." 

But he sleeps on the top of his mast 
with his eyes closed tight. 
The gull inquired into his dream, 
which was, "I must not fall. 
The spangled sea below wants me to fall. 
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all."

The quotation from Bunyan comes from a passage in The Pilgrim's Progress in which Christian comes across three men who are fast asleep, with fetters on their legs. They are conveniently named Simple, Sloth and Presumption, and Christian upbraids them: 'You are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom; awake, therefore, and come away...' Despite Christian's best efforts, they resume their perilous slumber.
  Bunyan surely had in mind that passage about the dangers of drunkenness in Proverbs, which in the Geneva Bible – his bible, and Shakespeare's – reads:

'Looke not thou upon the wine, when it is red, and when it sheweth his colour in the cuppe, or goeth down pleasantly. In the ende thereof it will bite like a serpent, and hurt like a cockatrise. Thine eyes shall looke upon strange women, and thine heart shall speake lewde things. And thou shalt bee as one that sleepeth in the middes of the sea, and as he that sleepeth in the top of the mast. They have stricken me, shalt thou say, but I was not sicke: they have beaten me, but I knew not, when I awoke: therefore will I seeke it yet still.'

I wonder if the Bunyan epigraph to Bishop's poem is there as a clue to lead us beyond The Pilgrim's Progress to Proverbs and to that vivid description of habitual drunkenness. Perhaps The Unbeliever is as much about the precarious life of the alcoholic (which Bishop knew all too well) as of the unbeliever – or, at times, any of us, when life is strange and sleep is even stranger. 

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