When They Sleep

by Rolf Jacobsen

English version by Robert Hedin
Original Language Norwegian

All people are children when they sleep.
there's no war in them then.
They open their hands and breathe
in that quiet rhythm heaven has given them.
They pucker their lips like small children
and open their hands halfway,
soldiers and statesmen, servants and masters.
The stars stand guard
and a haze veils the sky,
a few hours when no one will do anybody harm.
If only we could speak to one another then
when our hearts are half-open flowers.
Words like golden bees
would drift in.
-- God, teach me the language of sleep.

-- from Night Music: Selected Poems, by Rolf Jacobsen / Translated by Robert Hedin

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

We've had several cloudy, drowsy days in Colorado. (Pause to stifle yawn...) So today why not a meditation on the wisdom of sleep?

In sleep, we rediscover our simple innocent being. We are open, vulnerable, in an odd way supremely present in that unconscious state.

All people are children when they sleep.
there's no war in them then.


All our careful defenses, which have a way of mutating into unnoticed cruelties, loosen in sleep, and slide off our shoulders like a heavy coat. All harm and armor are set aside.

...a few hours when no one will do anybody harm.

Even when our hearts struggle to trust and rest, we have a built-in biological faith that kicks in at night.

The stars stand guard...

The chest unlocks, and the stifled tide of the breath resumes its flow in and out again.

They open their hands and breathe
in that quiet rhythm heaven has given them.


Imagine the waking world blessed with such unavoided honesty. Think what words and deeds our blossoming hearts would draw to them.

If only we could speak to one another then
when our hearts are half-open flowers.
Words like golden bees
would drift in.


I look outside the window, another sleepy morning. The call of a lone finch echoes through the milky morning air. My breath slows and deepens. My eyelids grow heavy.

- God, teach me the language of sleep.



Recommended Books: Rolf Jacobsen

The Winged Energy of Delight The Roads Have Come to an End Now: Selected and Last Poems of Rolf Jacobsen Night Music: Selected Poems North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen, A Bilingual Edition Night Open: Selected Poems





When They Sleep