It’s one of the 108 sonnets that Philip Sidney (1554 – 1586) wrote during his life. The poem is known as “Come Sleep! O Sleep” or (just) “Sleep.” That is because this poem is officially entitled Sonnet 39. This sonnet is about the effect sleep has on men. This poem is part of another story: the story of Astrophil (star-lover) and Stella (star).
About this poem
It’s almost like you are reading a conversation between two people. Yet, it’s not. Astrophil (or Astrophel) is the speaker who doesn’t only talk about sleep. He addresses sleep. The need to sleep is so great, but it does not seem possible.
There is more. The sleep that the poet is writing about isn’t sleeping at all. It’s the personification of the choices a man makes. At the beginning of this poem, sleep is nowhere to be found. Meaning: it’s impossible to make choices. He needs to find possibilities to find this sleep.
It shouldn’t be that difficult to find sleep. His bedroom is filled with things that would make it easier. Pillows so smooth and a bed so sweet.
Then the realisation kicks in. He sees himself as a poor man and a prisoner. This makes him nothing more than someone who is troubled by the fear to make his decisions or choices. And yes, this is something that can keep you up at night. This makes the circle as it is: round.
Astrophil and Stella
Because this is one of the poems that tell the story of Astrophil or Astrophel and Stelle, you can’t ignore this story when reading this poem. The story seems to be a tragic love. A love that is impossible. Someone who falls for someone out of reach. Just like the fascination, someone can have for the universe. For the stars.
Sonnet 39 – Come Sleep! O Sleep
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,
Th’ 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 of noise and blind of light,
A rosy garland, and a weary head;
And if these things, as being thine in right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.
Image source: Wikipedia
Who was Philip Sidney?
Philip Sidney was born on 30 November 1554 in Kent. He was an influential diplomat who worked for Queen Elizabeth I. He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and was educated at Shrewsbury School and Christ Church in Oxford. He was a master in languages (Latin, French and Italian).
In 1577 he was appointed as the ambassador to the German Emperor and the Prince of Orange. He was a true believer of Protestantism and therefore he advised his queen not to marry the Duke of Anjou, as he was Roman Catholic.
His influence at the court of the queen would rise when he was knighted in 1583. From that time he became a member of the parliament for Kent. He was then appointed as governor for Vlissingen, a city in The Netherlands. He was strongly opposed to the occupation of The Netherlands by Spain and wanted to help the Dutch get rid of the Spaniards. He was responsible for the defeat of the Spanish troops at Axel in July 1586.
When he joined Sir John Norris in the Battle of Zutphen later that year, he was again fighting against the Spanish troops. He got wounded in the thigh and died 26 days later of gangrene at the age of 31 on October 17 1586. A few months later, his body was returned to London and interred in the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral.