The Sun Rising – John Donne.
John Donne was born to a London merchant and illustrious Catholic family in 1572 in a time when Catholics were being persecuted by Queen Elizabeth I. Although he was educated and brought up as a Catholic, later in life he renounced his Catholic faith and became ordained in the Church of England in 1615, eventually becoming the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was a powerful and direct speaker in church, and it is for this, as well as his poetry, that he is remembered. Donne’s reputation was largely eclipsed in the nineteenth century, and was due to T.S.Eliot that his reputation has been revived since.
He was a man of great contradictions; being a minister in the Church, he was deeply spiritual, but he was also a great erotic poet, and this tension between spiritual piety and carnal lust is a key theme in many of his poems.
He was one of the leading poets to use a style known as ‘metaphysical poetry’ which served to illustrate the tension between religion and love that he was so fascinated in. Metaphysical poetry flourished in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and metaphysical poets were generally in rebellion against the conventional imagery of Elizabethan lyrics. The poems are intellectually complex, and use jarred and unconventional rhythm and unusual verse forms. In order to challenge conventional imagery, metaphysical poets used metaphysical conceit, a tool which involves using bizarre and surprising metaphors. An example of this in Donne’s poetry is in Holy Sonnet 14 when Donne compares God to a rapist. Donne’s poetry displays many typical features of metaphysical poetry, with its eccentric reasoning, strange metaphors and unusual meters. Apart from Donne, other great metaphysical poets included Andrew Marvell, Robert Herrick and George Herbert, some of whose poetry is in this selection.
This is a preview of the whole essay
We do not actually know the precise date at which the Sun Rising was written, but it is typical of Donne’s style; the image that the sun is subject to the speaker’s will is unusual and unconventional, and the meter is irregular and jarred. The narrator starts the poem lying in bed with his lover, and he reproaches the sun for bothering him through windows and curtains. He says that love is not subject to time, and tells the sun to bother ‘Late school-boys’, ‘sour ’prentices’, to tell the court-huntsmen that the King will ride and to call the country ants to harvesting.
Asking the sun why he thinks his beams are so strong, the speaker arrogantly claims that he can cause an eclipse by simply closing his eyes, although he doesn’t want to, for he would lose sight of his lover. He then tells the sun, if his eyes have not been blinded by his lover, to look and tell him whether the treasures of India are in the same place as they were yesterday, or whether they are in bed with the speaker. He says if the sun asks for the kings he shone on yesterday, he will find them in the speaker’s bed.
The speaker explains in the third stanza that his lover is like every country in the world, and that he is like every king. He says that princes play at having countries, but compared to him and his lover, all honour is mimicry and ‘all wealth alchemy’. He says the sun is half as happy as him, since the world is contracted into his bed, and the sun, asking for ease in its old age, needs only to warm his bed in order to warm the whole world. Thus since the sun cannot be stopped, the speaker twists reality, making it seem as though it is his generosity that is allowing the sun to stay.
The Sun Rising consists of three regular stanzas; each stanza consisting of 10 lines. Lines one, five and six are metered in iambic tetrameter, line two is in dimeter and lines three, four and seven to ten are in pentameter. The rhyme scheme in each stanza is ABBACDCDEE.
This lyric poem like many other metaphysical poems is a brief but intense meditation, characterised by striking use of irony and wordplay. Beneath the formal structure of rhyme, metre and stanza is the underlying less formal structure of the poet’s argument. The use of language in the stanzas is lively and varied. The almost breathless colloquial lines are however qualified in each stanza by a wholly regular and fluent rhyming couplet which enables Donne to conclude with a rhetorical flourish.
Donne’s lovers seem to transcend the limits of the physical world by disregarding external influences, coercing all things around them instead. Thomas Docherty a critic of John Donne states that in Donne’s poems ‘ the lovers become the world and occupy the same position of centrality as the sun becoming, in short, the still point around which all else is supposed to revolve’. In his poems the displacement of the outside world in favour of the two lover’s inner world serves to support the key theme of the centrality of human love amidst a permanent physical universe.
The Sun Rising is based on the argument of love transcending the outside world. It is built around a few hyperbolic assertions –
- The sun is conscious and has the watchful personality of an old busybody
- Love as the speaker puts it ‘ no season knows, nor clime, / Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time’
- The speaker’s love affair is so important to the universe that kings and princes simply copy it, that the world is literally contained within their bedroom.
Each of these assertions simply describes figuratively a state of feeling – to the wakeful lover; the rising sun does seem like an intruder, irrelevant to the operations of love; to the man in love, the bedroom can seem to enclose all the matters in the world. The inspiration of this poem is to pretend that each of these subjective states of feeling is an objective truth.
The speaker objects to the sun’s intrusion ‘through windows’ and ‘through curtains’. The windows and curtains separate him and his lover from the outside world, reinforcing his feelings that the bedroom seems to enclose all other matters in the word. The lover’s ‘seasons are placed against the sun’s seasons, and the narrators disputatious tone suggests his efforts to subordinate everyday and natural motions to ceaseless love. Lines 9 and 10 summarise the narrator’s intention to engage in mutual love within a confined realm that is free from the time constraints of the physical universe.
In the first stanza the narrator also declare the physical world’s inferiority to love. He rhetorically pushes the sun away in lines 5-7 telling it to ‘go chide/ Late schoolboys, and sour prentices,/ Go tell court-huntsmen, that the king will ride’. In these lines he is commanding the sun to seek these individuals so that he will be free from the sun’s motions but so that these people will also be kept away from his room. Therefore in the first stanza the narrator also presents an opposition to everything in the outside world from the sun to this king to convince the reader that his love is exceeds the boundaries of the outside world.
Donne endows his speaker with language implying that what goes in his head is primary over the world outside it; for instance in the second stanza the speaker tells the sun that it is not so powerful, since the speaker can cause an eclipse simply by closing his eyes. The eye is acting like the window from the first stanza separating an internal sphere from an outside sphere, and the ‘wink’, alike to the curtain in the first stanza, prevents the sun from intruding. This kind of heedless, joyful arrogance is perfectly tuned to the consciousness of a new lover and the speaker appropriately claims to have all the world’s riches in his bed (India, he says, is not where the sun left it; it is in bed with him). However in lines 27-28 the narrator reasons that since the sun is obligated to illuminate the world it must shine on him and his lover. The speaker captures the essence of his feeling in the final stanza when after taking pity on the sun and deciding to ease the burdens of his old age, he declares ‘Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere’. In the final line the narrator concludes that his bed is the centre of the universe and his walls are its borders, emphasising his belief that his love exists in an independent world from the one outside his bedroom.
The Sun Rising is a typical metaphysical poem about how love is transcending the outside world, with the speaker assuming that his subjective states of feeling are the objective truth. Donne portrays the speaker as a lover who is so immersed in the bliss of love that he reinvents reality in his mind, with his love existing separate to the outside world. The irregular form and meter of the poem exhibits the typical features of the metaphysical poem, and this reinforces how unconventional and unusual the poem is.