To Sleep

 Overview

I am back! The baby, the dog and the wife are all asleep, which makes for a wonderful time to join Sir Philip Sidney in praise of slumbering.

Another poem from his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, this one focuses on his desire for his lover’s angst to be soothed by the sweet embrace of sleep. It follows a sonnet where he is dreaming of Stella’s beauty and thus is a wish to return to it.

He sings Sleep’s praises and promises to worship it if it will sooth him as it does others, then does that with offering such as a pillow, silence and darkness, which Sleep usually laps up. Obviously what is really happening is that he is tossing and turning with his mind overwhelmed by his romantic desires/problems, thus he is basically praying for Sleep to give him a break and let him get back to his pleasant dreams.

Mini-Glossary
baiting – in this context, I think it means abating: so where wit stops and thoughts take a break;
proof – strength – basically a strong shield;
prease – old fashioned form of the word press, as in being pressed/pursued by someone to do something;
doth – does;
garland – a crown.

Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
   The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
   The indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof, shield me from out the prease
   Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
   I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
   A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland and a weary head:
    And if these things, as being thine by right,
       Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
       Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

For a longer introduction to Sir Philip Sidney read the context section of an earlier post about Sonnet 31 from the same collection: Astrophela and Stella – Starlover and Star

This collection was all about his obsession for another man’s wife. It included 108 sonnets and 11 songs which take you through all the ups and downs of being obsessed with someone.

Our sonnet is the 39th from the sequence and immediately follows a sonnet all about a rather pleasant dream that Astrophel (Starlover/Sidney) was having about Stella (Star/Penelope Devereux). This suggests that Sleep is being appealed to in order that our lover may return to his pleasant dream, but alongside this we must recognise that if he is clamouring to get back to the land of nod, then clearly the reality of his love life is not all that.

 

 Themes

This explores the idea of sleep as a magical cure to all the woes of life. Dreams are cast as a protector from the realities of existence, which in this case refers to the fact the object of his desires is married and doesn’t fancy an affair.

Content

The sonnet begins with an appeal to a personified Sleep to come to Astrophel’s rescue. In the opening Sleep is praised for easing the worries and bringing moments of peace for prisoners, those struck by poverty and in fact of anyone, high or low, in the world.

In the second half of the opening octave, he makes his plea to Sleep clear. He wants Sleep to use its shield to protect him from Despair’s darts, which represent the reality of his unrequited love. He describes his state of mind as being at war and promises worship if Sleep is able to bring his suffering to an end.

Next after the volta (line 9), he defines exactly what he can offer Sleep. On the face of it a pillow, darkness, silence and a sleepy man don’t seem like a particularly appealing gift, but remember who he is addressing; Sleep normally laps up these things. However, Astrophel has an ace up his sleeve, if Sleep is being more particular than usual, and offers to show Sleep the perfect image of Stella that exists in his mind/dreams. Thus confirming the reason he is up tossing and turning, and what he wants to get back to sleep for.

Language and techniques

Oodles of interesting bits and bobs here.

First, we have Sleep being capitalised and thus personified here. This is done to show reverence to it and its power to sooth our worries. Sidney’s Astrophel is desperate for Sleep’s help and thus treats it as if it were not only a person, but an almost god-like figure. ‘O Sleep’ sounds like the beginning of a prayer and the reverence is intensified by the titles Sidney bestows upon Sleep.

These titles come in the form of metaphors demonstrating the power of sleep: A ‘certain knot’ demonstrate a double surety that sleep will deliver ‘peace’; the ‘baiting place of wit’ might have a modern interpretation as a place where funny people get annoyed, but in this archaic use of the words means simply that the mind gets a chance to stop and relax; ‘the balm of woe’ suggests that if we apply sleep like a cream for a rash it should clear things up. We also have three more metaphors that make up Sleep’s rather impressive title, which are focused more specifically.

It is pretty crap to live in poverty (stating the obvious!), but sleep is ‘the poor man’s wealth’ insomuch as it offers some respite for the struggles of their existence. Similarly, prisoners have it pretty tough (not in the UK nowadays with their Playstations and TVs – I think it was tougher in the sixteenth century) and sleep gives them some form of ‘release’, but thankfully doesn’t just let them all out at night and only let’s them escape their cares for a few hours. Sidney finishes the title with Sleep positioned as ‘an indifferent judge’ who treats ‘high and low’ with the same respect and offers them some comfort and calm.

In line 5, we move onto exactly what Astrophel wants and why he needs it. A ‘shield of proof’ basically just means he is after a strong metaphoric shield to protect him from the constant ‘prease of those fierce darts’ being flung by a personified Despair that has all the ammunition it needs from the misery of Astrophel’s unrequited love. To further convince Sleep of his need he describes his mental health as a ‘civil war’ with his obsession no doubt slaughtering the rational side of his brain.

In return for this shield, Astrophel offers ‘good tribute’, which can be taken simply as some form of payment, but I think also suggest some sort of future devotion/worship. As the octave ends, the sestet offers us a glimpse of some of what is on offer: ‘smooth pillows, the sweetest bed, a chamber deaf to noise and blind to light’. Basically he is able to offer ideal sleeping conditioning along with a ‘weary head’, which should make sleep an inevitability. The fact that it is not suggests that his mind is not settled with the miserable state of his love life.

This should be enough for Sleep, but in reality Astrophel recognises that these are ‘thine by right’, so are always required by Sleep and therefore nothing special. Therefore, he offers ‘Stella’s image’ as it is in his mind and dreams, the word ‘livelier’ suggesting that she someone exists more perfectly within him than in reality. Now as an offering, I would say that this is pretty lame, but it illustrates just how highly Astrophel values his love that he thinks her image to be worthy of offering up in worship.

Structure

Not a huge amount to say here.

This is a Petrarchan sonnet with an opening octave setting out the issue and a concluding sestet suggesting a successful resolution.

I’d comment on the opening exclamation and how that begins the idea of Sleep being held in reverence, backed up by the long succession of titles accorded it.

You could also mention the abrupt end of a run of four lines all featuring caesuras and maintaining a slow, prayer like tone, which is shattered by the sense of despair conveyed in the words and the enjambment as Astrophel describes how his emotions chase and wound him.

Tone

For the most part this poem is reverential, but it is also always tinged with sorrow as Sidney positions Sleep as a god of mercy who can end the woes of his waking existence.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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