Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Boreham on Sleep: Victor Hugo, Argyle, Ridley et al

The moral and spiritual significance of sleep can scarcely be overestimated.

I fortify myself at this point by an appeal to Victor Hugo, and Victor Hugo was a philosopher. He is describing Jean Valjean in the act of robbing the good bishop who had pitied him in his distress, and had admitted him to the hospitality of his home and the confidence of his heart. In creeping through the silent and darkened house, the culprit came to the bed on which the bishop slept. ‘A moonbeam passing through the tall window suddenly illuminated the bishop's pale face. He was sleeping peacefully, his head thrown back on the pillow in an easy attitude of repose, and his hand, which had done so many good deeds, hung out of the bed. His entire face was lit up by a vague expression of satisfaction, hope, and beatitude—it was more than a smile, and almost a radiance. He had on his forehead the inexpressible reflection of an invisible light, for the soul of a just man contemplates a mysterious heaven during sleep. A reflection of this heaven was cast over the bishop, but it was at the same time a luminous transparency, for the heaven was within him, and was conscience. Jean Valjean was standing in the shadow, with his crowbar in his hand, motionless and terrified by this luminous old man. He had never seen anything like this before, and such confidence horrified him. ‘The moral world has no greater spectacle than this, a troubled, restless conscience, which is on the point of committing a bad action, contemplating the sleep of a just man.’ The moral world, says the brilliant Frenchman, has no greater spectacle than this! No statement that I have made is half so sweeping as that!

I have quoted Victor Hugo for the sake of the philosophy of that golden sentence. The illustration in itself is inconclusive, seeing that it is taken from romance. And so, beside that scene taken from French fiction, I place an almost identical scene taken from English history.

An hour or two before the execution of the Earl of Argyle, one of the traitor lords came to the castle and asked to see his lordship. ‘He was told,’ Macaulay says, ‘that he was asleep. The visitor thought this was a subterfuge, and insisted on entering. The door of the cell was softly opened, and there lay Argyle on the bed, sleeping, in his irons, the placid sleep of infancy. The conscience of the renegade smote him. He turned away sick at heart, ran out of the castle, and took refuge in the dwelling of a lady of the family living hard by. There he flung himself on a couch, and gave himself up to an agony of remorse and shame. The woman, alarmed by his looks and groans, thought that he had been taken with some serious illness, and begged him to drink a cup of sack. “No, no,” he said, “that will do me no good.” She prayed him to tell her what had disturbed him. “I have been,” he said, “in Argyle's prison. I have seen him, within an hour of eternity, sleeping as sweetly as ever a man did I But as for me—”

I like to remember, also, that the night before Latimer and Ridley lit at Oxford that candle which has never been put out, Ridley's anxious brother offered to spend that last terrible night with them. ‘No, no, brother,’ smiled the Bishop, ‘I mean to lie down and sleep as gently as ever I did!’ And, to the amazement of the warders who kept guard, he was as good as his word, rising in the morning from his quiet slumber to greet the flames that bore his soul to the skies! Great sleepers, these!

Poor George Stephenson, when he was building the Menai Tubular Bridge, used to say that he went to bed at night with those gigantic tubes and girders, and was still staggering under them when he rose in the morning. We are too prone to that sort of thing.

We need to take lessons of Sir William Cecil, once Lord Treasurer of England, who, on throwing off his gown at night, used to say to it, ‘Lie there, Lord Treasurer!’ and forgot all the cares of State until he resumed his official garb in the morning. We are such poor sleepers because we are such poor saints.

The best things all come to Sleepy Hollow….And so I believe in Sleepy Hollow. They may laugh at its repose who laughed at the great souls who slumbered there; but I am convinced that, if I can learn its restful secret, there will enter into my life a great and wonderful enrichment.

F W Boreham, ‘Sleepy Hollow’, The Golden Milestone (London: Charles H Kelly, 1915), 17-21.

Image: ‘I believe in Sleepy Hollow.’