Morpheus, the lively son of deadly Sleep,
Witness of life to them that living die;
A prophet oft, and oft an history,
A poet eke, as humors fly or creep,
Since thou in me so sure a power dost keep
That never I with closed-up sense do lie,
But by thy work my Stella I descry,
Teaching blind eyes both how to smile and weep,
Vouchsafe of all acquaintance this to tell:
Whence hast thou ivory, rubies, pearl and gold,
To show her skin, lips, teeth, and head so well?
‘Fool,’ answers he,’ no Inds such treasures hold,
But from thy heart, while my sire charmeth thee,
Sweet Stella’s image I do steal to me.’
I suggest you click here to open the sonnet in a separate window, so that you can refer directly to it as you read on through the analysis.
This sonnet might profitably be read as a companion to Sonnet 39 (an apostrophe to Sleep), though this one is more specifically about the mixed blessing of dreams. Morpheus is the god of dreams, and at least according to Ovid (other ancients say otherwise), he is the son of Hypnos, god of sleep; and he is a shape-shifter. Further, he is the “lively son of deadly Sleep” because while sleep was considered (by Renaissance writers) an early foretaste of death (in sleep, we “living die”) dreams disrupt and enliven that state with all sorts of vivid dramas. Morpheus is a story-teller (“Witness of life”), a “prophet” who envisions the future (by superstitious but common interpretation), a historian (“history”) who recalls the past, and a poet who (Sidney would argue—in fact, did argue in Defense of Poesy) alters the truth in order to tell a larger truth. “As humors fly or creep” is just a night-goblin, dream-like way to say “when he feels like it.”
The second quatrain turns specific and gets to the heart of the matter: the speaker is a captive audience for Morpheus, and he always dreams the same thing: Stella, who, as usual, brings the mixed message of smiling and weeping in line 8.
There’s an interesting structural wrinkle, for an Italian sonnet, here: the entire octave is one big subordinate clause, and the “other shoe” of the main clause doesn’t drop until line 9, where Morpheus is finally asked to answer just one 2-line question out of his entire knowledge (“acquaintance”) of the human world: where did you get the materials with which to create such a beautiful image as Stella? (I’m reminded of the hit song from my parents’ era, “Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?,” except that, oddly, Stella’s flashing eyes don’t make the list this time around.)
The answer, which fills the final tercet, stands the speaker’s expectation on its head, parallels the bottom line of Sonnet 1 (“look in thy heart”), and incidentally reflects a modern understanding of dreams (and that of Shakespeare’s skeptical characters, such as Mercutio): the “visions” seen there are not imported from exotic, far-flung places (the “Inds” = the Indies, thought to be a treasure house of rich splendors, awaiting western exploitation), but are entirely generated within. This presents the curious paradox (but appropriate to a shape-shifter?) of a mythical being arguing for his own non-existence.
Next time (weekend of October 4): Sonnet 33
Jonathan Smith is Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.