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A Short Analysis of John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’

A summary of a classic poem

‘The Sun Rising’ (sometimes referred to with the original spelling, as ‘The Sunne Rising’) is one of John Donne’s most popular poems. In this poem, Donne apostrophises (i.e. addresses in a rhetorical fashion) the sun, as it peeps through the curtains in the morning, disturbing him and his lover as they lounge around in bed. The poem is worthy of close analysis because of the refreshing directness of language, the sheer arrogance of the poet’s speaker, and the inventiveness of Donne’s metaphors.

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 school boys 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’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as 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 center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Perhaps the best way to summarise Donne’s poem is by offering a paraphrase. First, the opening stanza: ‘Sun, why do you insist on peeping through windows and curtains like some old busybody, getting us out of bed like some unwanted visitor calling round? Go after the boys who are running late for school, and the apprentices who aren’t hurrying to get to work! Go and do something useful, like telling the huntsman at the royal court that the king has decided to go out riding today, or tell the ants to go about their business. But love [i.e. what my lover and I were up to until you turned up] does not obey the hours of the day or seasons of the year: it transcends such things.’

In the second stanza, Donne gets personal: ‘You with your strong sun’s rays, what are you thinking? I could get rid of your light in an instant, by simply closing my eyes – but I don’t want to because that would also deprive me of sight of my beloved. Have you been blinded by the beauty of her eyes yet? If not, then look, and then tomorrow evening, come back and tell me whether the East Indies and West Indies – both prized for their spices and their precious minerals – are where you left them, or whether such treasures and gems lie here next to me, my beloved is such a donne-the-major-works-oxfordwonderful treasure. Ask for the kings you saw yesterday, and you’ll find that all the royal splendour of the world has been lying here.’

In the third and final stanza, Donne homes in yet further on his beloved: ‘My lover is all states and all princes of the world rolled into one – oh yes. Nothing else exists that is worth our attention. Princes are mere shadows of my beloved and me: next to our love, all honour is a sham, all wealth is like alchemy, a vain attempt to create riches from base metals. And you, Sun, are only half as happy as we are, in that the world, your natural partner, is already promised to another (i.e. my beloved and I are the world, and sorry, Sun – we’re spoken for). You’re getting old, and since it’s your job to warm the world, you’ve done your job once you’ve warmed us, because, as I say, we are the world. Shine here, and you shine on everything (or everything that matters). This bed on which we lie is the centre of the world, and the walls of this bedroom are the edges of the world’s sphere.’

The above paraphrase or summary of the content of ‘The Sun Rising’ is necessarily longer than the poem itself, which shows just how much Donne packs into a relatively short poem. Like T. S. Eliot, a great admirer of Donne’s poetry, Donne can make a single image or phrase resonate with half a dozen meanings. But the central meaning of ‘The Sun Rising’ is similar to the meaning of ‘The Good-Morrow’, another classic Donne poem: my beloved and I are so in love that the rest of the world is but a poor show compared with us. Or, as that latter-day poet, Morrissey, once put it in a classic modern love song, ‘Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds’.

It was Samuel Johnson who dubbed John Donne and his successors ‘Metaphysical poets’: poets who often use extended metaphors in their work, sometimes drawn from contemporary scientific and philosophical ideas, to explore familiar themes such as love. And ‘The Sun Rising’ is a love poem, in which Donne praises his lover, claiming she outstrips all princes and kings in the world, and all the riches to be found in the East and West.

And Donne’s metaphors are clever. Look at the way he takes the idea of being blinded by staring at the sun and turns it on its head, saying that if the sun may well be blinded by looking upon the eyes of his beloved – they’re that dazzling and beautiful. It’s impossible to be blinded by beauty, of course, but the cleverness of the conceit transforms it from clichéd declaration of love (‘I’m blinded by your beauty’) into something more affecting because, as T. S. Eliot observed, thought and feeling were united in Donne’s poetry.

The rhythm of ‘The Sun Rising’ is jaunty and alive, suggesting Donne’s arrogant and self-confident challenge of the sun’s primacy and authority. But the rhymes are also a tour de force and worth analysing more closely. Look at the progress of the endings of these four successive lines:

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.

Although Donne is championing his beloved’s beauty, ‘me’ and ‘me’ are here rhymed, and even ‘mine’ is rhymed with ‘thine’, with the pun on ‘mine’ (diamond or gold mines, but given the fact that it’s sandwiched between ‘me’ and ‘me’, we cannot help but get a whiff of the possessive pronoun here) placing Donne at the centre of things. If ‘The Sun Rising’ is a love poem that still resonates with us, it is not simply because of the refreshing detachment (Donne does not praise his beloved directly, but via the intrusive sun) but because Donne is happy to talk about himself at such length.

‘The Sun Rising’ invites close analysis because of such fine details of language and rhyme, and because the imagery is not simply the usual fare. The extended metaphor with which Donne closes ‘The Sun Rising’ – he and his beloved are the whole world because nothing else matters to them as long as they’re in love, so the sun cannot be partnered with the world because Donne and his lover are the world – is unfolded deftly and to great effect. Who hasn’t felt like that when in love? Arrogant, yes – but all too human. Donne’s honesty is in acknowledging this side to being in love, self-satisfaction and all.

The best edition of Donne’s work is, in our opinion, the indispensable John Donne – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). Continue to explore Donne’s poetry with his fine seduction poem, ‘The Flea’.

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Posted on February 14, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. One of my alltime favorite poets and poems. Love this!

  2. There is a play on changing thinking on cosmology too

  3. I Die, and if I cannot be beleev’d,
    My deaths more certaine, as it is most sure…
    …And yet even there shall in my bosome pure,
    The shape of thy faire face ingraude be eyed.
    For that’s a relique, which I do reserve
    For the last traunces, my countentions threaten,
    Which midst thy rigour doth it selfe preserue.
    O woe’s the wight! That is by tempests beaten
    By night in unknown Seas, in danger rise
    For want of North, or haven to lose his life.

    This is a poem written by John Donne and nobody knows this: Don Quixote I, 4, VII page 371-372. He wrote all the poems in the DQ..

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