By Dr Oliver Tearle
Astrophil and Stella is one of Elizabethan poetry’s finest and brightest gems. In 108 sonnets and a handful of songs, Sir Philip Sidney produced the first sustained sonnet sequence in English (though not, contrary to popular belief, the very first). Sonnet 39, beginning ‘Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace’, is one of the most widely anthologised poems in the sequence – and this analysis is going to attempt to explain why it remains so popular.
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 press
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.
In summary, Sidney begins Sonnet 39 with a request for sleep: this is the second of three sonnets about sleep and going to bed. Note how Sidney addresses sleep, personifying it. Sleep won’t come, so he flatters it, lavishing kind epithets upon it: it is the ‘knot’ (or flowerbed or small garden plot; this sense is etymologically related to the more common meaning of ‘knot’) of peace, meaning that it’s a bed (a flowerbed, that is) where peace can flourish. It is the ‘baiting place’ of wit: a baiting-place was a wayside inn or stop where one could take refreshment on a long journey.
In other words, getting a good night’s sleep increases your wit – used here to refer generally to wisdom, cleverness, and sharpness of mind. Woes are soothed by the soft balm of sleep, like healing a wound with an ointment. A poor man can gain ‘wealth’ and a prisoner ‘release’ in sleep, not least because sleep is a time when our minds can dream a better life for us. Sleep is also a great leveller: the highest-born and the lowliest person are equal in sleep (though presumably, the high-born ones’ beds are comfier).
Sidney calls upon sleep to protect him with its ‘shield of proof’ from the sharp darts of despair he feels (‘darts’ suggesting Cupid’s arrow: the despair Sidney’s speaker feels is down to his hopeless love for the woman, ‘Stella’); he’s prepared to pay protection money, or ‘tribute’, if sleep can provide a shield from such despairing thoughts.
Sidney says he can offer smooth pillows, a comfortable bed, a bedroom that is essentially soundproof and blocks out all light – and if all of this isn’t enough to induce sleep (because, after all, they already belong to sleep ‘by right’), then he knows that something that will seal the deal: if sleep grants his wish and lets him get some shuteye, then in Sidney’s dreams, sleep will be granted the ultimate reward, of seeing the beautiful image of Stella there, more lifelike than anywhere else. What an incentive!
This idea of trying to strike a bargain with sleep will strike a chord with anyone who has endured a sleepless night because of an affair of the heart. (Shakespeare would also write a sonnet on this subject.) It doesn’t matter if you have the perfect conditions for sleep: sometimes sleep just won’t come, when you are what the poets used to call ‘heartsick’ over something or someone.
Sonnet 39 also contains some subtle effects involving rhyme: note how the first eight lines of the poem, the octave, are rhymed abababab. It’s usual practice for a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet to have just two different rhymes in the octave, but they’re normally rhymed abbaabba. Rearranging them in alternating lines creates a seesaw back-and-forth effect that suggests the tossing and turning of the poem’s speaker: ‘Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace’ sounds like a cry of despair, the speaker having exhausted all other options.
And the final line complicates the message of the sonnet. If Sidney – or his fictionalised speaker, Astrophil – cannot sleep for love of Stella, something it seems fair to infer from the other sonnets in Astrophil and Stella, then sleep will hardly provide complete respite from her, since even in his dreams he expects to see her. In the last analysis, it is the surprise of this final line which crowns the poem as one of the great sonnets in the sequence.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Sir Philip Sidney, from 1912 book by Henry Thew Stephenson; Wikimedia Commons.