Sidney’s Astrophel

It is a time-honoured and universal truth: there come times in every person’s life when circumstances can prove too much to bear, and all they desire is to escape and retreat from the world for a period. In both Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella XXXIX, and Keats’ To Sleep, sleep represents this kind of escape for the speakers, one from his situation, and the other from himself. The deep need of each voice to pull away from his world is fully translated in the sonnets through both the formal and thematic structures of the poems, as well as through the lexicon and poetic devices of each.

Both the formal and thematic structures of the poems demonstrate how important the need to escape is for each of the voices. In Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella XXXIX, the poem is in the form of a sonnet, with a rhyming scheme abababab-cdcd-ee. The poet uses this form to emphasize the desperation felt by the speaker to feel free of the turmoil in side him. The first body of rhymes, making up eight consecutive verses, represents the actual conflict raging in the mind of Astrophel.

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It is a high-energy group, filled with short phrases (“The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release”) contrasting with longer, more powerful statements (“Of those fierce darts despair at me doth throw”). This especially long series of rhymes illustrates to the listener how utterly consumed Astrophel is with this conflict. The second group of rhymes, consisting of only four verses in the middle of the poem, represents the quiet and the peace the speaker longs for, and which he believes only sleep can provide him.

The relatively short length of this body highlights the fact that Astrophel is almost entirely consumed with the struggle, and can only dream of respite. The final couplet, the volta, brings the speaker back to reality, to the consequences if sleep does not take him. It is a final, desperate plea fro relief from Stella’s image. In To Sleep, the poem climaxes at the irregular volta. The rhyming scheme, abab-cdcd-bc-efef, is a variant of the typical English sonnet form.

In the first body of rhymes, the first four verses, the speaker describes sleep as the “embalmer of the still midnight,” [1] a dark figure that overtakes the speaker with “forgetfulness divine. ” [4] He then continues in the second body by showing his desperation to be overtaken by this force, even in the middle of his hymn [6]. This builds the suspense, as the listener can sense the tension growing. The volta is next, placed in the middle of the sonnet, and borrowing rhymes from the previous two groupings.

The speaker is explaining why he must fall asleep, as the “passed day will shine” [9]; the passed day being the villain he longs to avoid. This section works as the climax of the poem, as the speaker is directly confronted with his worst nightmare. The last grouping of rhymes shows the listener that the villain the speaker is running from is actually himself, not some external threat, and therefore brings down the level of tension felt in the poem. The close relationship between the formal and thematic structures of both sonnets allows the listener to truly feel the desperation of the speakers to forget their troubles.

The vocabulary in both sonnets reinforces their respective thematic structures. In Astrophel and Stella XXXIX, the first eight verses are dominated by war terminology. Words such as shield, fierce, darts and wars, as well as the play ‘knot of peace’ all lend a feeling of aggression, conflict and disaccord to the sonnet. The listener can easily sense that Astrophel is fighting against some force, and that he is looking to sleep to resolve his problem. The second group of verses connotes an altogether different feeling.

This group is quite sensual and calming, enumerating in very positive terms what each sense will feel when sleep overtakes him. The listener can feel the pillows, taste the bed, listen and see the emptiness of the chamber and smell the roses of the garland right along with Astrophel. By choosing positive words such as smooth, sweetest and rosy, the speaker is drawing the listener into his world, showing us the calm that only sleep can bring him. Similarly, the vocabulary in To Sleep is also carefully chosen to lend a certain solemnity to the sonnet.

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