Friday, 17 May 2013

'The Sun Rising' by John Donne

JohnDonne.jpgThis is quite possibly my favourite Donne poem but it only became that quite recently because some of its aspects kept escaping me. In the hope to make it your favourite much quicker, here's my analysis of it.

This was always our least favourite part in English lessons, but it has to be mentioned: the phallic imagery that runs through the title. Clearly the Sun isn't the only thing rising. But the poem doesn't advertise physical love alone, it tells of a much deeper, profounder love, that trumps the power of the Sun in more ways than one. It is quite clear from the start that this poem is a monologue addressed to the rising Sun, but it is much more than that. It is also a praise poem to love, like many of Donne's works. Important here is to pick up on the personification of the Sun. It is a 'busy old fool', 'unruly' and a 'saucy pedantic wretch'. Whereas at first glance it might seem these words are written in an angry tone, they are actually quite teasing. If you were mad at someone you wouldn't call them 'saucy'. Rather, Donne greets the Sun as a friend who keeps butting in at the wrong moments but never truly disturbs him. The narrator could be seen as a cocky youth, raising himself above the ancient Sun and mocking its powerlessness.

The narrator commands the sun 'chide' others but leave 'lovers' to run their own 'seasons'. The progression of those others is quite impressive. He rises from 'late school-boys and sour prentices', to 'court-huntsmen', to 'the king' and back to 'country ants'. What Donne is trying to express is that despite the Sun's power to control the smallest insect to the highest power in the country, it is powerless against those that are in love. Not only is its 'call' not enough to wake the lovers, but its other use, to tell time, is useless as well. Love 'knows..nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time'. The Sun isn't alone in its helplessness. Time itself has no affect on Love and cannot damage it or those in love.

In the second stanza the narrator begins to praise his love and continues to assert his own strength over the Sun's. He could 'wink' and eclipse' the sun's 'strong' beams, but if he did he would 'lose her sight' and that isn't something he is willing to do. Seeing her lying with him his to precious a thing to lose over proving his own power to the Sun and again the Sun is shown as being less strong than Love. The narrator challenges the Sun to look upon his love and not be 'blinded' by her. Blinded is often a word used in context with the Sun and here Donne is raising his lady up to the same striking beauty. Donne wrote during the so called Age of Discovery in which Europe explored most of the other continents such as Africa and the Americas. For Britain, India held a special attraction and it is often referenced. Here, the narrator challenges the Sun to see whether the riches of India are still there 'to-morrow' or whether they do not lie in bed with him. He praises his lady as equal to the exotic treasures found there and argues that the 'kings', which would be most interested in India's treasures, would agree that they 'lay' in the narrator's bed. Donne here describes love as the greatest treasure a human can own, since it eclipses all materialistic possessions.

In the final and third stanza, Donne and his lady come together, both linguistically and quite possibly also physically. She is 'all states', which is a reference to the previously mentioned India's, but combined with him being 'all princes', it also becomes quite sexual. He searches her for treasure, invades her even and while they're at it 'Nothing else is'. The Sun is not only powerless but also completely disregarded by them. Here is the first time Donne uses 'us', suggesting lovers are united and should be regarded as one whole. Royals 'play' at what they do, suggesting that warfare and conquest is rather like Love. But it falls into nothing, as do 'honour' and 'wealth', who are nothing but 'mimic' and 'alchemy'. They are false forms of one true passion.

When he addresses the Sun again, he does not mock but almost seems to show pity. The Sun is 'half as happy as we', its true purpose being to warm the world but not me warmed. Rather than cut short the lover's time as he suggests in the first stanza, the Sun can only achieve its purpose by warming the two lovers in bed with its beams, because they own the world. Love is everywhere and by shining light on them, so is the Sun. In the final line, the lovers take the place of the Sun, suggesting their 'bed thy centre is, these walls thy sphere'. They are the personification of Love and through them, the Earth is warmed.

Donne was a rather religious man, becoming a cleric in his later life, and as such religious context can quite often be found in his poetry. What is interesting with this particular poem is the Sun itself. In 1616, the Church of Rome declared the fact that the sun was the centre of the galaxy as 'false'. Donne's poems were published in 1633, but probably written years before and it is quite possible that Donne took it upon himself to dispute Copernicus' theory of a heliocentric universe. Rather than the Sun being the centre, his lover and him are, i.e. humans and the world are still central to the Universe. He was a clever man, this Donne.

Donne was also a metaphysical poet, a term coined by the critic Samuel Johnson. These poets were characterized by looking at what was behind (meta) the physical. They would ask 'what is love?' and then use conceits (extended metaphors) to search for an answer. In this case, the Sun's personification is the conceit that allows Donne to search for the true nature and power of Love. Donne doesn't just use the metaphysical conventions, he also plays with the idea of the aube. This was a song traditionally sung by French troubadours in the 11th-12th century, which lamented the parting of lovers at dawn. But rather than this being regretful, the lovers rejoice in the light shining upon them and do not fear the Sun.

I hope you now understand why I love this poem as much as I do. Donne's view of Love is one of all-conquering power. Nothing can stand in the way of one who is in love and I think that is a beautiful message. He wrote another poem called 'The Good-Morrow' and sometimes I see it as a companion piece for this poem, but then the inward thoughts of the lovers, rather than their boast. What do you think?

As a quick tip, the Luminarium is a great place to find any poem, if you ever get lost!


  1. I was perusing through my local library the other day and was drawn to a book with beautiful drawings titled My Brother's Book by Maurice Sendak. It is a story written around two of Shakespeare's lines " a wild dedication of yourselves/to unpathed waters, undreamed shores." I thought you might enjoy it based upon the above blog post!

    I look forward to seeing you around my blog :)

    Katelynn Clark

  2. I love Sendak's drawings and I love Skakespeare so it sounds like you've recommended the perfect book! Thanks :D

  3. Hell yes! John Donnie is an awesome poet and this is easily one of my favorite poems by him. Your analysis is spot on, especially in relation to the "metaphysical conceits" that he employs with such skill. It's rare to find other people who appreciate and love poetry, especially those from the 17th century! Curious to know what you think of Milton, hehe. I am now a big fan of your writing and blog. Keep up the great work.