Last Updated September 5, 2023.
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.
Sidney, in the guise of his speaker Astrophil, describes to his audience how he has come to write this sonnet sequence. He says he wants to convey his woe—or sadness—that Stella (in real life, Penelope, the daughter of the Earl of Essex) has loved and married another, when he loves her so dearly. We learn that he has studied other poems ("inventions") to prepare himself to write. Although he does not say so, his sonnets are based on Petrarch's, who is credited with inventing the sonnet form, and he also owes a debt to Spenser, whose work Sidney admired.
He has turned the leaves (pages) of these poets to try to find inspiration for his "sunburnt brain." A sunburnt brain is an example of the kind of imagery that brings us back to Sidney again and again. It evokes the picture of a brain both parched and dazed and in need of the "fruitful showers" of other people's work. Sidney also informs us that he writes specifically to entertain and engage Stella's mind. The rest of us, therefore, become eavesdroppers listening in on his what he says to her.
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
"Fool," said my muse to me; "Look in thy [your] heart, and write.”
The above is an important quote, for Sidney ultimately signals that the sonnet sequence will be lyrical. He talks to himself, saying look in "thy" (your) heart: the heart is the source of emotion, and lyrical poetry is concerned centrally with expressing emotion. Further, despite having examined models provided by other poets, these poems will spring from a personal place, another attribute of lyrical poetry. We also are put at the scene with the poet, which draws us in, seeing him bite his pen, which is truant (absent) from the page because Sidney cannot yet come up with words.
Come, Sleep; O Sleep! the certain knot of peace,
The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man's wealth, the prisoner's release,
Th' indifferent judge between the high and low . . . .
This passage shows Astrophil suffering so much from the anguish of unrequited love that he dreams of sleep, much as Hamlet does in Shakespeare's play. The passage also displays Sidney's poetic skill. It begins with apostrophe, as Astrophil addresses sleep. His passionate desire for sleep is emphasized by the exclamation point. The passage uses alliteration—placing words beginning with the same consonant in close proximity—in the repeated "b" and "w" sounds in "the baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe . . . poor man's wealth . . ." to establish a pleasing sense of cadence. The power of sleep is also conveyed in the series of metaphors (comparisons) that describe it, ending on sleep personified as a judge.