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I remembered something I've heard from time to time all my life, namely that the last thought we think before we go to sleep is important because it is amalgamated into the subconscious. I'd read it recently in a magazine and a short time later heard an inspirational counselor on television, expounding it, say, "Dwell on some worth-while or uplifting thought as you drop off. Maybe just a line of poetry. I once lulled myself to sleep with the phrase, 'the darling buds of May.' The sheer beauty of a line like that, taken over the brink with us, can't help permeating us with its moral or aesthetic merit."

While lying in bed, waiting to fall into the arms of Morpheus (or into his hands, rather, as I prefer to think of it, and you would, too, if you had some of my dreams) I remembered the counselor's suggestion and acted on it. Composing myself between the sheets, I set my mind to the task of selecting something to dwell on. I fetched up with several possibilities, famous sayings and fragments of poetry and one thing and another, but discarded them all for various reasons — not suited to meditation, too flippant, etc. Among them was "Say not the struggle nought availeth," which I felt to be rousing rather than mesmeric in its effect. A capital thought to get up with, say, and face the new day. For some reason, I recalled Samuel Johnson's "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," and also that it was he who first said Hell was paved with good intentions. Neither of these seemed quite right for the purpose at hand; one did not want anything "trenchant". I could see that this method was not as easy as it sounded. Then suddenly there swam into my mind a line of poetry that I found as felicitous as the TV counselor apparently had the fragment from Shakespeare. It was from a poem by Dylan Thomas that I'd heard someone read aloud at a party the week before: "Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house."

I dwelt on that awhile. The cadence of the words and the gentle profundity of the mood they evoked utterly charmed and, gradually, soothed me. An excellent idea, this. I would make a regular practice of it, taking a thought or a line a night and immersing myself in it, giving myself over to its overtones. How much better than indulging in some flabby reverie full of woolgathering and wish-fulfillment. I reiterated the line hypnotically to myself: "Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house..." Just as I was getting pleasantly drowsy, I sensed something nagging the back of my mind; something about the line. I didn't know what it meant.

I lay with my hands laced under my head, looking up at the ceiling. Did the poet mean to convey the idea of religious experience in middle age under nocturnal conditions? Or was the owl designed to suggest a pagan element (as the bird traditionally linked with Minerva) rather than mere physical nightfall? Or was a note more funereal than either of these intended to be struck? Was the symbolism all private and obscure? After maybe half an hour of this, I glanced at the dresser clock, which was not obscure, being phosphorescent. It said a quarter after two. (I hadn't gone to bed till one-thirty.) This was a hell of an hour to get into textual criticism.

Peter De Vries, The Tunnel of Love
Copyright © 1949, 1951, 1953, 1954 by Peter De Vries. All rights reserved.

Posted 25 August 1996

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