Emma Smith 10B
Which of ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne and ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell do you believe to be the most successful poem?
John Donne and Andrew Marvell were two of the most outstanding of the English Metaphysical poets of their era. In both of the poems to which this piece of extended writing refers, highly intellectual and complex imagery is used to make us discover the hidden meanings behind their unconventional love poetry. Both poems were written at a similar period, and though both authors were similar in ways, there are also points of diversity.
John Donne was a renowned clergyman, loved and respected greatly for his ingenious fusion of wit and humour he injected into both his sermons and his poetry. Donne’s work was widely published during his life and though shunned by his family for renouncing the Roman Catholic tradition, attending both Oxford and Cambridge and receiving no degrees and a shocking secret marriage to Anne More, Donne managed to make a healthy living and laugh at his mishaps. The poet, in characteristic pun later summed up the latter experience as, ‘John Donne, Anne Donne, undone.’
By way of contrast, Andrew Marvell was the son of a working vicar. He attended college but after the death of his father, he decided to travel from country to country in an unsettled manner. Not much is known about Marvell as prior to his death, very few of his works had been published. From what is recorded though, we believe that during these 5 years in which he spent travelling between Holland, Italy, France and Spain, he wrote all of his poetry that has now become well known. After his travels he applied for a job as assistant secretary to the council of state and after 4 years was finally given the position thus concluding his short lived, unrecognised, literary career.
I believe that the most successful poem of, ‘The Sun Rising and ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is the latter. Both of the poems are written aiming to flatter their lover but for different reasons. In this essay I hope to give you an insight as to why I believe this claim to be true.
‘To His Coy Mistress’ was written with the aim of praising the woman addressed in this poem as, ‘Lady,’ and then gently persuading her through flattery to go to bed with him. This intense mixture of love and lust draws us in. Marvell is frequently described as a Metaphysical poet and while this is unquestionably true, he also takes elements from other types of poetry such as cavalier. In ‘A critical history of English Literature,’ David Daiches says, ‘His best poetry combines true metaphysical wit with perfect classical grace and poise to a greater degree than any other poet of the century…[He] stood alone, creating his own synthesis out of the clashing elements around him.’ This describes the mood and perfection taken with his work in all circumstances. The poem is written with intent and this shows in the structure of the poem. The rhyming couplet form carries on throughout the poem giving it a flowing feeling. It seems to persuade us to read on although the subject is quite complex and challenging to comprehend.
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‘The Sun Rising,’ is written to the sun trying to persuade him to stop coming through the curtains each morning and forcing John Donne and his partner to arise from their sleep and carry on with normal life. Donne personifies the sun and deeply flatters his lover by suggesting the world revolves around her. The overall intent of the poem therefore seems to be a little muddled; is Donne aiming ‘The Sun Rising’ at his lover, or at the sun? Also the structure of the poem is very unorthodox. Unlike the rigid rhyming couplets of ‘To Hi Coy Mistress’, this poem has a near random pattern I think this makes reading it a challenge as well as understanding the complex imagery and personification.
‘To His Coy Mistress’ is written as an argument. Marvell has split this poem into three sections. The first part (lines 1-20) is called the thesis. This section contains a traditionally witty argument which is meant to seduce his mistress. Marvell infers that life is too short and you should act now while you are young and passionate. The middle section consists of lines 21-33 and this is called the antithesis. Beforehand, the author said what he would do if he had time but now Marvell tells us that time is moving rapidly. As this concept of time enters the poem his lover is reminded of her mortality. The final section is from line 34 to the end and is known as the synthesis. This mixes images and closes the poem by urging his mistress to cease the day; carpe diem. He thinks that they should take control and make time their servant. This powerful pattern leads you onwards and persuades you to finish the argument; each section as persuasive as the last. Make every second count, because every second is counted.
‘The Sun Rising’ is also split into three sections which unlike the indented paragraphs of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ are separated stanzas. In the first stanza Donne tells the sun to go away as love he believes does not obey time furthermore Donne suggests to the sun that he is more powerful than it is. In the second stanza Donne now qualifies his previous statement by saying why he is superior, he also tells us that his mistress is more radiant than the sun and goes on to tell us that the world is in his bed. In the final stanza Donne explains to us why he has the universe. He goes as far as to conclude that the world we live in is just a poor copy of the real one he and his mistress have. Lastly he contradicts himself by saying the sun should shine at them because they are everything. This style has done completely the opposite Marvell managed to do with ‘To His Coy Mistress’ it has succeeded however in making it terribly confusing with almost a different thought in each separate stanza and conflicting desires at the beginning and the end.
Another reason for the fluid feeling of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is its rhythm. It is written in iambic tetrameter which is said to be the closest to realistic speech and therefore the easiest to read from. Marvell also uses enjambment which is when sentences go over onto the next line so that the expression of ideas can be less rigid. This is used to sustain the flow of the poem which carries us onto the next line. These techniques have been used in the most effective way in the antithesis. Where the poem would be more tempting to put down and then cause you to leave with a bad impression of Marvell. A quote to show this is:
‘The graves a fine and private place,
But none, I think do there embrace’
Obviously it was not Marvell’s intention for his mistress to put the poem down as she was part way through, he needed her to carry on past the ideas of her death and into the relatively positive conclusion in the synthesis. Therefore, in the antithesis there are only 3 sentences over 12 lines.
In ‘The Sun Rising,’ Donne sticks to neither a rhyming scheme nor a poetic meter. What does help his poem along though, are the rhetorical questions put in place so that the reader wants to read on in hope that they will find the answer. For example:
‘Must thy motions lover’s seasons run?’
The point of a rhetorical question is that the person to who it is addressed cannot answer. In this case Donne does this cleverly because it sounds as if the sun should be apologising for interrupting the lovers.
From a modern point of view, the condescending manner which Marvell uses towards his mistress is distressing. In lines 13-18 he tells her how long he would spend looking at her given the chance, addressing every part before her heart including specifically her eyes, forehead and her breasts. We interpret this as Marvell being more bothered about her body than about her heart. He also introduces the idea of death in the antithesis which is not very conventional when he uses it in the form of such vivid imagery:
‘…then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity’
I think Marvell uses this to show her what might happen if she doesn’t sleep with him suggesting that she will spend the rest of her life refusing sex and in the end there will be nothing but worms left to try her virginity. Marvell is really using an old idea of emotional blackmail in the new form of a poem to get him what he desires.
‘The Sun Rising’ similarly is patronising towards the lover of Donne. He says
‘She is all States, and all Princes, I’
At the time when this was written ‘Princes’ were any kind of ruler and so Donne is suggesting that though his wife is the world he rules over her. He does not even go as far as to tell us her name, addressing her as ‘her’ and ‘she’ which are impersonal pronouns. This indicates that he does not care for her to a great enough extent as to use her proper name.
The language used in, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is very persuasive. As I have previously said, Marvell is witty and sly but also very graceful in his work:
‘For, Lady, you deserve this state;
Nor would I love at a lower rate.’
Here he is describing how he would love her and says that he would not love at a lower rate, this is a lie. He must love lower than this rate or he would spend all of his life looking at her forehead! Marvell exaggerates greatly through flattery especially in the thesis where he would wait:
‘Till the conversion of the Jews.’
A very unlikely occurrence and he would be waiting almost forever. It is so impossible that Marvell sounds almost sarcastic towards his mistress, yet he manages to do this in a sly way so that she still feels as though she is loved. This is ambiguous as what he expected her to understand from it was that he would wait a long time if there was no limit on their mortality.
Similarly ‘The Sun Rising’ has many ambiguous phrases, such as:
‘Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic; all wealth alchemy.’
What he is actually meaning is the world he has with his lover is much more true than the lie in which everyone else lives. The main difference between the two uses of ambiguity though, is that Donne builds his own world up throughout the poem making it feel real and Marvell just uses his ambiguity for humour. It is as though Donne believes his fictional universe and Marvell is making fun of his mistress’s morals.
In the ‘Sun Rising’ it seems as though Donne writes like he is superior to the sun and everyone else then hopefully, his lover will think how magnificent he is for being above the world and love him more. A quote from line seven says:
‘Go tell the court-huntsman that the King will ride.’
This rudely reminds the court-huntsmen that though they are very high in the social hierarchy, they must still answer to the King. Donne alternatively does not feel he has to answer to anyone;
‘Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.’
Donne does not think he has to answer to any living person and above that he does not think he needs to answer to the sun, which gives the seasons and time. Donne addresses the sun informally using ‘Thou’ which used to be a colloquial way of saying ‘You’. It is as though Donne thinks if he personifies the sun he can talk to it any way he wishes.
In ‘To His Coy Mistress’ Marvell mentions the sun in his two closing lines proving that he like Donne has a disregard for time and the sun. The finishing lines are:
‘Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.’
This means that though they realise that they cannot defeat time by standing still, they will do their best to make the sun run after them because they will be trying to get away from it. This similarly to Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’ personifies and makes fun of the sun and time. Both poems do this to a very good effect and the reader enjoys the image of the dominating sun being told to change because someone is in love and wants more time to live.
In conclusion, both poems are well written in different aspects with similar boasting and condescending personification of the sun. I think the more successful of the two is ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell because of its flowing techniques and winning structured argument in comparison to the more confusing and muddled, ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne. I believe that Marvell would be more likely to succeed in getting his mistress to sleep with him (as long as she is intelligent enough to see past the intense imagery but somehow blinded to the obvious fact that the sole reason for this literary exercise is in fact, that) than Donne is to have the sun obey him and the world in his bedroom.
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
There are some good attempts at analysis of the two poems here and overall, a good general understanding. There is also an attempt at consistent comparison. The essay could be improved with a more structured answer, enabled by clear planning. Some key poetic techniques are not analysed, and there are not enough direct references to the poems (use of quotes). Some point made are inaccurate. Contextual references need to be integrated into the analysis of the essay and only used if they contribute to the analysis. It is also best to try and omit subjective comments and avoid descriptive re-telling of the poems. **