Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace, The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poem opens with the speaker telling a personified Sleep to come (as in "come to me, help me get some shut-eye"). He apostrophizes it immediately after and calls it the "certain knot of peace," "the baiting place of wit," and the "balm of woe."
Wow, that's a lot to digest. Let's take it piece by piece and see if we can figure out what all these metaphors are about. Wait, metaphors? Yep, metaphors. Sleep isn't really a knot, is it?
First up: the knot of peace. "Certain" here means something like "true," not "particular" (as in, "I know a certain website called Shmoop"). A knot is, well, a knot—something that holds things together tightly, keeps them from ripping apart, etc.
So, then, a "certain knot of peace" means a tried and true thing that maintains peace. Think of it like this: your day is busy and stressful so you go home to sleep. If you don't sleep, you won't get any peace. Sleep "ties" it down, in a way, all nice and secure.
Next up, we move on to the "baiting place of wit." We really wish this had something to do with fishing, or trapping a polar bear but, alas, it does not. Once upon a time, "to bait" meant to stop and rest (like at a Holiday Inn on your cross country road trip, for example).
So, sleep is the resting place of wit (or intelligence, or cleverness, etc.). It's a place for all those hard-working mental faculties to recharge their batteries, so to speak. Just imagine this guy when you read this line (and pretend he's sleeping with his eyes open).
As for the "balm of woe," that's no problem either. A "balm" is something that heals, like an ointment. Nowadays we use the word a lot in the phrase "lip balm." (Chap Stick is the most well-known brand.)
Anyway, think of all your pain, or "woe" as a chapped lip. You put lip balm on it to soothe the pain and help it heal. And that balm is called… sleep. Ahh.
The poor man's wealth, the prisoner's release, The indifferent judge between the high and low;
Well, this poem is just turning out to be a metaphor bonanza. In these lines we get three more metaphors. On top of the three we've just had, that makes a total of… (carry the one)… six!
The speaker uses alliteration of P words to tell us that Sleep is the "poor man's wealth," "the prisoner's release." It's also the "indifferent judge between the high and low."
Okay, now hold on just a second, how in the world can sleep make a poor guy rich, free a prisoner, and act as an indifferent judge? The short answer is it can't.
The long answer, though, is that it can, but only metaphorically. Take the poor man. No, sleep isn't going to make him a millionaire overnight, but sleep may be so enjoyable and refreshing that it makes the poor guy rich in a different way.
The same goes for that dude in the prison. Sleep isn't going to sneak into his cell, file away the bars, and show him the door.
No, no, no. But, maybe the prisoner will fall asleep and have a dream about freedom. Or, perhaps sleep is so good for the prisoner that it's like freedom, just as it is a source of wealth for the poor man.
Well this is all fine and dandy, but how exactly does sleep perform the role of an "indifferent judge"?
Think of it like this: Sleep comes to both rich men and poor men, prisoners and non-prisoners, the high (in Sidney's day, earls, dukes, duchesses, and the like) and the low (peasants, farmers, beggars, etc.).
In other words, sleep is the great equalizer; it is "indifferent" because it comes to all men and doesn't judge them for being rich or poor, high or low.
Keep in mind that all of lines 2-4 go with the second use of the word "sleep" in line 1. All these metaphors and clauses essentially function like adjectives, describing the powers of sleep and what it can do for us. Thanks for the help, sleep—good lookin' out.
With shield of proof, shield me from out the prease Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
The speaker is still addressing Sleep, but now he asks for a little more than just a visit. However, it's gonna take some work just to figure out what is happening here because there's a bunch of gnarly words and constructions for us to break down.
Let's start with that word "proof." It just means "proven strength." Okay, it sounds like the speaker wants Sleep to do something with a really strong shield.
And it turns out that the speaker wants Sleep to "shield" him "from out the prease." "Prease" just means "crowd" or "press," so the speaker wants to be shielded without ("out") from a crowd of something. But a crowd of what? We have to cross the enjambment between lines 5 and 6 to find out.
And when we do, it turns out that the speaker wants to be shielded by Sleep from a crowd of "fierce darts" that a personified Despair is metaphorically throwing at him. (No, Despair isn't actually throwing darts at this poor guy; it's just his way of describing the onslaught of feelings of despair—ouch.)
Now, did you notice that the syntax here is all funky? If you were talking to your friend, you might say, "Hey, Sleep, my man, shield me with a strong shield from the crowd of darts that Despair is throwing at me."
Okay, so why not just write that then, Philip Sidney? Well first there's something really poetic about saying it that way. And besides, there are things like rhyme (more in a moment) and meter to worry about as well. Speaking of which, this poem is in iambic pentameter, if you haven't picked up on that already. (For more on that good stuff, check out our "Form and Meter" section.)
O make in me those civil wars to cease; I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Wow, more requests by the speaker, eh? This time, he asks Sleep to stop the civil war that is going on inside of him (whatever that means). Oh, and that "O" tells us that this is still part of one big giant apostrophe (no relation to the punctuation mark) to the idealized figure of Sleep.
The speaker also says he will pay Sleep a "good tribute" if he agrees to do so. Hmm, what is going to pay with? Money? Jewels? An autographed copy of his new book?
We don't know yet, but we do know that there aren't really any civil wars going on inside the speaker. Well, not real ones with cannons and battles and all that.
They are a metaphor for some conflicting impulses that are making the speaker's life really difficult—perhaps he's referring to those pesky darts mentioned in line 6.
Like lines 5-6, these lines also make use of a somewhat creative syntax. In line 7 we might normally say "make those civil wars in me cease," whereas in line 8 we might usually be like "If you do, I will pay you good tribute."
Speaking of tribute, that's usually something you pay to the mob boss down the block who makes sure that nobody trashes the convenient store you operate in his territory.
Clearly, the relationship between the speaker and Sleep isn't one of brotherly love or anything like that. In order to be given the gift of sleep—which will cause the civil war to go on hiatus—the speaker has to placate, or appease, Sleep with some gifts.
If we keep reading, we'll probably get to find out what those gifts are! In the meantime, this is a good place to pause to take stock of a few things.
This is a sonnet, and usually the first eight lines of a sonnet are a group (called the "octave"), as are the second six (the "sestet"). We can tell that this is the case in this poem because the rhyme schemes are different. For the first 8 it is ABABABAB, where each letter represents the end rhyme of that line. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on all this sonnet stuff.