Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,/ Reality’s dark dream!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dejection, An Ode, 1802
One can almost imagine the protagonist in 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters' quoting these lines by the great English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). They come from a poem about the failure of the creative impulse, and, like the poet’s coiling ‘viper thoughts’, Goya’s owl and cats hamper his subject’s creativity. His pen is cast aside, his paper ignored on the table.
Bad dreams populated by monsters can be found depicted in several works in the Fitzwilliam. Roughly contemporary with Goya’s Los Caprichos is a series of illustrations made by the English artist William Blake for the Old Testament Book of Job. Plate 11, below [P.6-1939], is entitled 'Job’s Evil Dreams', and carries a quotation from the book:
'With dreams upon my bed thou scarest me and affrightest me with visions ...'
Satan, with a long, flowing beard, floats over the recumbent, terrified Job, mockingly pointing at the Tablets of Law above and the fiery torments of Hell below. Two scaly figures reach up from the inferno and grab Job’s legs and thighs, while a third holds up a thick chain. Satan himself resembles traditional depictions of God the Father, but a serpent is coiled around his body and closer inspection reveals a cloven hoof where his feet should be. Lightning flashes in the air behind him.
Blake himself experienced vivid dreams and visions, and suffered from attacks of melancholy which he spoke of as destructive to creativity. It is tempting to read his Job as an allegory of the artist himself, set upon by the horrors of the night, by his own doubts and anxieties about God.
In the same artist’s set of watercolour illustrations, inspired by John Milton’s 1671 epic Paradise Regained, we see Christ himself troubled by Satan-sent dreams PD.20-1950.
His nightmare is similar to Job’s. The Evil One again takes the form of God the Father, an old man with a long white beard. He floats above the sleeping Christ, fiery snakes trailing from his hands. Another huge, coiling serpent flickers his forked tongue next to Christ’s ear. Other snakes slither beneath and two sharp-fanged, lion-like creatures flank him. Despite these horrors, Christ remains in a serene, deep sleep.
In the next picture in Blake's series PD.21-1950, the kindly female figure of Morning chases away the phantoms and Christ awakes unperturbed by Satan’s tricks.
From a very different culture is a Japanese print in the Fitzwilliam by an exact contemporary of Blake, Kitagawa Utamaro. It shows the troubled sleep of a child who is being comforted by his mother. Three monsters stick out their tongues and leer within a thought bubble that emerges from the child’s head. The conversation of these demons is recorded on the print:
Let’s give him some more nightmares tonight.
As long as his mother doesn’t wake him, we’ll scare him some more.
Right, let’s show his mother some horrid dreams tonight as well!