Ah bed, the field where joy’s peace some do see,
The field where all my thoughts to war be trained,
How is thy grace by my strange fortune stained!
How thy lee shores by my sighs stormed be!
With sweet soft shades thou oft invitest me
To steal some rest; but, wretch, I am constrained
(Spurr’d with love’s spur, though galled and shortly reined
With care’s hard hand) to turn and toss in thee,
While the black horrors of the silent night
Paint woe’s black face so lively to my sight,
That tedious leisure marks each wrinkled line.
But when Aurora leads out Phoebus’ dance,
Mine eyes then only wink, for spite perchance,
That worms should have their sun, and I want mine.
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.
Reading note: “stormed” in line 4 has two syllables; and since “sighs” is almost impossible to read as an unstressed syllable (especially given the rhyme with “my”), the sound here imitates the sense of a buffeting storm, with three straight strong syllables, “my sighs storm-.”
This poem should be compared to Sonnet 39, which it almost echoes. The first line of 39, for example:
Come sleep, O sleep, the certain knot of peace,
comes easily to mind as we read:
Ah bed, the field where joy’s peace some do see . . .
Both poems discuss war and peace, and speak of sleep as the natural refuge of peace. But what a falling off is here! To read the two poems side-by-side is to go from hope to despair, from the speaker’s idealized vision of a future with Stella—when he could entice sleep with a promise that “Stella’s image” would appear there—to the dark tormented thoughts he has been discussing for the past two sonnets.
The hypnotic opening line of Sonnet 39 (quoted above) is developed for a full, leisurely quatrain, adding five parallel phrases to “the certain knot of peace” (“The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,” etc.). But here, after the word “field” is repeated, the poem turns right away in the opposite direction, stressing that the speaker has got things backwards, and thus is “staining” sleep, or giving it a bad name. The normal “lee shores” of sleep—i.e., the sheltered shores, facing away from the bad weather—are being unaccustomedly buffeted by the speaker’s misery. Like a horse with an incompetent rider, his love spurs him on and “galls,” or checks, him at the same time.
Notice the poetic illustration of “turn and toss” (line 8): the moment where an Italian sonnet customarily comes to rest is right after “in thee” at the end of this line. But this one keeps churning on for another three lines, a “sound” imitation of the “sense” of one being kept up well past one’s bedtime.
The fulcrum comes at the start of line 12, and the fairly pathetic twist on the poem’s main idea is that at dawn (“when Aurora leads out Phoebus’ dance”) he finally nods off (“eyes . . . wink”) as if to spite the whole rest of the natural world—down to even the lowly worms—which welcomes the “sun” (think: son) he cannot have.
Next time (weekend of April 15): Sonnet 99
Jonathan Smith is Emeritus Professor of English at Hanover College, Hanover, Indiana.