Come Sleep! Oh Sleep
Once upon a time there was a guy named Astrophel (sometimes spelled "Astrophil") who fell in love with a really, really beautiful girl named Stella (no, we don't mean Stella McCartney). He loved her, but there was a catch: she didn't really love him. Eventually, she got engaged to another guy, which just about broke young Astrophel's heart. He kept trying to steal her away, but, alas, to no avail. Stella didn't roll like that. While he did manage to steal a kiss from her once while she was asleep, he never got any farther than that. She got kind of tired of his begging her to leave her husband, and finally she cut him off for good. That one really destroyed poor Astrophel.
Cheer up, though, Shmoopers. This isn't a "real" story; it's the one Sir Philip Sidney tells in his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591), where "Come Sleep! Oh Sleep" first appeared. Wait, a sonnet sequence? Yes, a sonnet sequence is exactly that: a series of sonnets that sometimes tell a loosely connected story, sometimes not. You're probably familiar with Shakespeare's and maybe even Edmund Spenser's (the Amoretti) sonnet sequences, which are the most famous, but not the only ones. Sonnet sequences were totally in vogue back in the Renaissance, and lots of poets tried their hand at writing them. Most sonnet sequences are about love (often unrequited love) and beauty and that sort of stuff. If you're looking to impress your boyfriend or girlfriend, you could do worse than quote a sonnet by Shakespeare, Sidney, or Spenser.
More specifically, a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem invented by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) that became really popular during the English Renaissance, largely as a result of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey—both of whom pretty much ripped off all of Petrarch's ideas (in a good way). You can read more about the history of the sonnet, and sonnets in general, here, here, and here.
Now, as for Astrophel and Stella, we must tell you that those are not your run-of-the-mill, everyday-names. They're not totally made up, but they definitely have Greek and Latin written all over them. Sonneteers (yes, that's a real word) liked to use cool, mythological-sounding names like that in their sonnets, probably because they're, well, cool. The name Stella comes from a Latin root meaning "star," and Astrophel comes from Greek roots meaning "star" ("astro", as in astrophysics, astrology, astronaut) and "love" ("phil", as in philosophy, philology, Philadelphia). So, Astrophel means "the one who loves a star" (i.e., the one who loves Stella). Well… isn't that neat?
We told you up above that the story of Astrophel and Stella was sort of made-up, but that's not, ahem, the whole story (let's see how many times we can say the word "story" in one sentence). Nobody really knows for sure, but scholars speculate that Stella was based on a real person named Lady Penelope Devereux; according to the story, Sidney was totally in love with her. She, however, was a married woman, and didn't return Sidney's love (so they say). The story told in Astrophel and Stella, then, may have a real historical basis. You can read a bit about it here.
"Come Sleep! Oh Sleep" is the 39th sonnet in Sidney's sequence (it is sometimes just referred to as Sonnet 39), and it occurs as part of a mini-sequence about sleeping and dreaming. In Sonnet 38, Astrophel has a dream about Stella—and she looks totes amazing. Something wakes him up, however, and he's upset. He wants to get back into that dream so he can stare at the beautiful, angelic, idealized Stella again. This is why he all but begs Sleep to come to him again and tries to appease him with all sorts of cool gifts (a perfect sleeping chamber and soft pillows, chief among them).
Why Should I Care?
It's December. It's cold, rainy, snowy—anything but pleasant. Christmas is right around the corner, but then again, so are final exams. Groan. Yep, some would say that that week of tests which can make or break your grade is the worst of the year (except for its counterpart in the spring). It's usually a pretty stressful and tiring time; sometimes, it's so stressful you might have a little trouble sleeping. Who hasn't been there at least a few times?
A typical night during finals might go something like this: You're super-stressed because your English final, which is all about Sir Philip Sidney, is going to be really hard, and you really need to get at least a B to maintain your 4.0 average. At the same time, you've been trying to get this really pretty girl in your math class to go out with you, and she keeps rejecting you. Plus, your weekend job at the movie theater is unsatisfying, and… well, on and on and on. All of this stuff is just too much; the only time anything good happens is at night, when you're asleep and have pleasant dreams. Sleep might be so desirable during these tumultuous days that, on the night before that Sidney final, you find yourself unable to sleep. It gets so frustrating you start calling out to Sleep: "Sleep! Sleep! Please come to me. Make this war inside me go away! I'll give you anything."
A poem about final exams and boring movie theater jobs "Come Sleep! Oh Sleep" is not, but it's all about wanting to go to sleep and being unable to. It's about the ways in which sleep is a pleasant escape from everything that is stressful and unfulfilling about life: girl problems (or boy problems), despair, woe, internal wars, everything we're positive you've experienced at one time or another. And hey, it's not that weird that the speaker, Astrophel, of the poem calls out to Sleep. We may not want to admit it, but we've all been guilty of appealing to imaginary or spiritual beings from time to time, most especially when we're tossing and turning and just can't get any shut-eye. It is comforting to know that even a knighted guy with money and fame, Sir Philip Sidney, was also aware of just how welcome, and yet fleeting, sleep can be. We are not alone, thank God.