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Theme 4: Day and Night (i) >

John Donne

The Sun Rising  >
poem, commentary and criticism 

Correggio Danaë

Poems (1633, d2) 

Busie old fool, unruly Sunne, 
Why dost thou thus, 
Through windowes, and through curtaines, call on us? 
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run? 
Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide 
Late school boyes, and sowre prentices, 
Goe tell Court-huntsmen that the King will ride, 
Call countrey ants to harvest offices, 
Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme, 
Nor houres, dayes, months, which are the rags of time. 

Thy beames, so reverend and strong, 
Why shouldst thou thinke? 
I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke
But that I would not lose her sight so long: 
If her eyes have not blinded thine, 
Look, and to morrow late, tell mee, 
Whether both the Indias of spice and Myne, 
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee. 
Aske for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday, 
And thou shalt heare, ‘All here in one bed lay.’ 

 with a winke: I could stop the sun’s light by simply closing my eyes, so why should the sun be thought so ‘reverend and strong’?
Indias of spice and Myne: the East and West Indies, famous respectively for spices (sweet odours) and gems.

She’is all States, and all Princes, I, 
Nothing else is. 
Princes doe but play us; compar’d to this, 
All honor’s mimique, all wealth alchimie. 
Thou, sunne, art halfe as happy’as wee, 
In that the world’s contracted thus; 
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee 
To warme the world, that’s done in warming us. 
Shine here to us, and thou art every where; 
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.


Commentary and criticism

The Sun Rising is an interesting and impeccable metrical pièce de resistance. The idea that all poetry should conform to certain established patterns of iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme and so on rather misses the point that poetry is about playing with words (rhythms, sounds, emphasis, meaning). It all depends on what you, as a poet, want to achieve. Donne here proves that he is a master of this art. He puts together three identical ten line stanzas with lines of varying length which nevertheless form an exact and complex metrical pattern, and uses the form he has created to vary emphasis and colour with exquisite skill. No wonder the sermons which he gave later on in life were well attended!

The thought that characterises Donne's poetry was criticised as being 'metaphysical' by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), which criticism is today taken as a compliment. I suppose there is justification for both points of view. The twentieth century delight in absurdity and novelty was well attuned to welcome Donne's strikingly original and sometimes almost absurd metaphors, while Johnson's eighteenth century respect for order and good sense was clearly going to reject them.

In this poem, the conceits are a little strange, but no more. The whole is worked out with a nice consistency, and stems from the lover's irritation at being disturbed in his amorous exploits by the arrival of the sun. As a lover, he puts himself above ordinary people: schoolboys, apprentices, court-huntsmen, country ants, who all must work to the sun's (time's) bidding. The chiding of the sun with the phrases 'busy old foole, unruly sunne' and 'sawcy, pedantique wretch' are in themselves delightful, the 'countrey ants' going to harvest, the 'late schoolboye', the 'sowre prentice', the 'court huntsmen' being told that the 'king will ride', all paint a picture which finds an echo in personal experience and with which we can identify, of people forced to get up and do things they don't want to do. As a lover, he has no truck with any of that. These are but the 'rags of time', another delightful expression which is probably original with Donne.

The second stanza attempts to establish the patently absurd proposition that the world is actually the bedroom in which the lovers lie, that the 'Indies of spice and Myne' are in bed with Donne, not on the other side of the world. The two Indies relate incidentally to parts of the female anatomy, but the attempt to establish the proposition is clearly playful, and, in general, full of sophistical arguments. The fact that, in closing one's eyes it is possible to negate the power of the sun is, of course, specious, and the idea that the kings of the world are all in bed with the lovers is perhaps going a little far for even the most metaphysical of imaginations to accommodate.

Undeterred, the poet continues in the third stanza with even more extravagant assertions: 'She's all States, and all Princes, I', followed by the fine use of the short line he has just invented to enunciate 'nothing else is'. He belittles the power of princes, the possession of wealth, and the pursuit of honour as mere chimera, and finally consoles the sun with the fact that he can take a rest from his duties of warming the world since, if the sun warms the lovers, his task is completed, as the world is the lovers' bed and room.

The sophistry of all this is amusing enough, the cleverness of the poetry is impressive, the imagery brilliant, thought provoking and memorable, and the fact that all this sophistry and poetical ability are given to the service of amusing a lover is intriguing. The juxtaposition of the worlds of learning and sex also gives a certain dynamic to the poem's appeal. But just where we go from here is not clear. Back to bed, perhaps.

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