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The Sun Rising -- John Donne

(Poem #465) The Sun Rising
         Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
         Why dost thou thus,
 Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
 Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
         Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
         Late schoolboys, and sour prentices,
     Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
     Call country ants to harvest offices,
 Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
 Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

         Thy beams, so reverend and strong
         Why shouldst thou think?
 I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
 But that I would not lose her sight so long:
         If her eyes have not blinded thine,
         Look, and tomorrow late, tell me
     Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
     Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
 Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
 And thou shalt hear: "All here in one bed lay."

         She is all states, and all princes I,
         Nothing else is.
 Princes do but play us; compar'd to this,
 All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
         Thou, sun, art half as happy 's we,
         In that the world's contracted thus;
     Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
     To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
 Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
 This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.
-- John Donne
It's difficult not to be dazzled by Donne's wit and imagery; unfortunately, at
times it seems equally difficult to get over his lack of, well, 'poeticness',
for want of a better word. At times he seems to consciously ignore conventional
measures of rhyme and metre and poetic beauty, concentrating instead on shocking
his readers with unexpected turns of phrase and outrageous conceits. His
language is direct and conversational, his verse full of dissonance and
colloquialism. Not for him the gods and goddesses of Petrarch or even Spenser's
nymphs; his poetry is, instead, 'a dazzling battery of language and argument
drawn from science, law and trade, court and city' (EB).

Samuel Johnson puts it best: Donne's ideas and intellect are worthy of true
respect, but 'for not keeping number' he deserves to be hanged <grin>. On the
other hand, no less a personage than Tagore describes Donne as the greatest
lyric poet in the English tongue, so opinion is certainly divided on the issue.
Personally I like his verse [1], but I'm willing to admit that at times the
ideas overshadow the poetry.

A more serious charge often laid against Donne is that he lacks depth - that he
runs out of inspiration after the first few lines of any poem, and relies on
mere wit to propel him forward. Again, this accusation is not without truth, but
it's not as damning as it appears at first blush - "his use of difficult
argument, complex metaphor and allegory [may be] a device to control and
discipline his wildly romantic heart - he treads over-carefully like a drunk who
does not trust his own tottering footsteps."  [1]

It should also be remembered that Donne's poems are as much about intellect as
they are about emotion; to blame him (as the Romantics did) for pursuing the
former at the expense of the latter is missing the point entirely. And as Eliot
pointed out three centuries later, Donne and the Metaphysicals were the last
group of poets able to unify these two strains into a single poetic

Anyway. It looks like I got a wee bit carried away with the litt critic thing;
enough already - I'll just leave you now to enjoy the poem.


[1] Read 'Go and Catch a Falling Star', a beautiful guest poem with some very
insightful comments from Anustup Dutta, at poem #384 .


"both th' Indias of spice and mine" refers to the East and West Indies, home to
exotic spices and rich mines, respectively.

"alchemy" refers here to counterfeit gold; the subject itself was one of Donne's
favourite sources of metaphor and symbolism. See his 'Valediction: Forbidding
Mourning' at poem #330 for the
most famous example.


An explication of the poem can be found at
[broken link]
. I found it rather simplistic, but it makes for a good introduction.

There's an essay on 'The Lover as Logician' at
[broken link] which I quite liked; here's an

In "The Sun Rising," Donne follows in the aubade tradition of the song to the
rising sun. (Cf. Romeo's "But soft! What light through yon window breaks?/ It is
the East, and Juliet is the sun.") He rebukes the  sun for waking him and his
beloved. Echoing sentiments in  Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, he frees love from
temporal demands: "Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours,
months days, which are the rage of time." In the same fashion that he will mock
Death in the most famous of his Holy Sonnets, he demeans the sun, saying that he
could shut the sun's beams out at any time by closing his eyes, but he would
thereby lose sight of her. Using the Petrarchan conceit that Shakespeare mocks
in the opening line of Sonnet 130, Donne tells the sun that if her eyes "have
not blinded thine," it should report the next day where the richness of the
world lay—in the spice-and-gold rich Indies or in their bedroom. "She is all
states, all princes, I./ Nothing else is." All the world's pageantry and honor
is but a imperfect imitation of their exalted state, made  so by love, which has
made them "an everywhere," a microcosm of all that is of value in the world.

        -- [broken link]

Also not to be missed is Brittanica on the Metaphysicals and on Donne in
particular; extracts can be found at poem #330.


Brittanica describes Donne as 'the first London poet' - which I suppose is a
connection of sorts with Martin's theme for this week.

Michael Schmidt, in his _highly_ recommended study 'The Lives of the Poets',
says this about Donne:

"Robert Graves describes his verbal jugglery thus: 'Donne is adept at keeping
the ball in flight, but he deceives us by sometimes changing them in mid-air'. A
juggler who changes balls in mid-air was bound to appeal to Eliot and the

The phrase 'verbal jugglery'  reminds me irresistibly of Peter Schaeffer's
gorgeously complex poem 'Juggler, Magician, Fool: A Pantoume', archived at
poem #195.

Come to think of it, that poem could have been made for Donne - both as a direct
tribute to the man and his poetry, and as an exercise in self-reference,
ingenuity and wit. Read it!

50 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Norman Batterby said...


There used to be a reading of this poem in the BBC archive recorded by the
actor Cecil Trouncer some time in the 'fifties, but alas no longer
available. I am sure that it must still exist in some private collection. It
was a melifluous reading which first attracted me to Donne. Can anyone

I see also that there is a Caedmon CD of (young) Richard Burton reading his
love poems - but not including this. He had a fine voice, although I
question its suitability for Donne's works. Has anyone heard this recording


Kerri Clarke said...

This is one of my favourite poems, and for all that it may lack
³poetickness², it¹s just so smart, and witty,! Damn, it¹s sexy.
Why won¹t that unruly fool of a sun go away and leave him alone with his
love? ³She¹s all states, and all princes I, nothing else is² - what a
blindingly great line. This is one poem that always makes me smile.


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