John Donne: Poems Summary and Analysis
by John Donne
"The Sunne Rising"
The poet asks the sun why it is shining in and disturbing him and his lover in bed. The sun should go away and do other things rather than disturb them, like wake up ants or rush late schoolboys to start their day. Lovers should be permitted to make their own time as they see fit. After all, sunbeams are nothing compared to the power of love, and everything the sun might see around the world pales in comparison to the beloved’s beauty, which encompasses it all. The bedroom is the whole world.
“The Sunne Rising” is a 30-line poem in three stanzas, written with the poet/lover as the speaker. The meter is irregular, ranging from two to six stresses per line in no fixed pattern. The longest lines are generally at the end of the three stanzas, but Donne’s focus here is not on perfect regularity. The rhyme, however, never varies, each stanza running abbacdcdee. The poet’s tone is mocking and railing as it addresses the sun, covering an undercurrent of desperate, perhaps even obsessive love and grandiose ideas of what his lover is.
The poet personifies the sun as a “busy old fool” (line 1). He asks why it is shining in and disturbing “us” (4), who appear to be two lovers in bed. The sun is peeking through the curtains of the window of their bedroom, signaling the morning and the end of their time together. The speaker is annoyed, wishing that the day has not yet come (compare Juliet’s assurances that it is certainly not the morning, in Romeo and Juliet III.v). The poet then suggests that the sun go off and do other things rather than disturb them, such as going to tell the court huntsman that it is a day for the king to hunt, or to wake up ants, or to rush late schoolboys and apprentices to their duties. The poet wants to know why it is that “to thy motions lovers’ seasons run” (4). He imagines a world, or desires one, where the embraces of lovers are not relegated only to the night, but that lovers can make their own time as they see fit.
In the second stanza the poet continues to mock the sun, saying that its “beams so reverend and strong” are nothing compared to the power and glory of their love. He boasts that he “could eclipse and cloud them [the sunbeams] with a wink.” In a way this is true; he can cut out the sun from his view by closing his eyes. Yet, the lover doesn’t want to “lose her sight so long” as a wink would take. The poet is emphasizing that the sun has no real power over what he and his lover do, while he is the one who chooses to allow the sun in because by it he can see his lover’s beauty.
The lover then moves on to loftier claims. “If her eyes have not blinded thine” (13) implies that his beloved’s eyes are more brilliant than sunlight. This was a standard Renaissance love-poem convention (compare Shakespeare “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” in Sonnet 130) to proclaim his beloved’s loveliness. Indeed, the sun should “tell me/Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine/Be where thou lef’st them, or lie here with me.” Here, Donne lists wondrous and exotic places (the Indias are the West and East Indies, well known in Donne’s time for their spices and precious metals) and says that his mistress is all of those things: “All here in one bed lay” (20). “She’s all states, and all princes I”(21). That is, all the beautiful and sovereign things in the world, which the sun meets as it travels the world each day, are combined in his mistress.
This is a monstrous, bold comparison, a hyperbole of the highest order. As usual, such an extreme comparison leads us to see a spiritual metaphor in the poem. As strong as the sun’s light is, it pales in comparison to the spiritual light that shines from the divine and which brings man to love the divine.
The strange process of reducing the entire world to the bed of the lovers reaches its zenith in the last stanza: “In that the world’s contracted thus” (26). Indeed, the sun need not leave the room; by shining on them “thou art everywhere” (29). The final line contains a play on the Ptolemaic astronomical idea that the Earth was the center of the universe, with the Sun rotating around the Earth: “This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.” Here Donne again gives ultimate universal importance to the lovers, making all the physical world around them subject to them.
This poem gives voice to the feeling of lovers that they are outside of time and that their emotions are the most important things in the world. There is something of the adolescent melodrama of first love here, which again suggests that Donne is exercising his intelligence and subtlety to make a different kind of point. While the love between himself and his lover may seem divine, metaphorically it can be true that divine love is more important than the things of this world.
The conflation of the earth into the body of his beloved is a little more difficult to understand. Donne would not be the first man who likened his female lover to a field to be sown by him, or a country to be ruled by him. Yet, if she represents the world because God loves the world, is Donne really putting himself, as the one who loves, in the position of God?
What we can say with some firmness is that the sun, which marks the passage of earthly time, is rejected as an authority. The “seasons” of lovers (with the pun on the seasons of the earth, also ruled by the sun) should not be ruled by the movements of the sun. There should be nothing above the whims and desires of lovers, as they feel, and on the spiritual level the sun is just one more creation of God; all time and physical laws are subject to God.
That the sun, of course, will not heed a man’s insults and orders is tacitly acknowledged. It will continue on its way each day, and one cannot wink it out of existence. There is nothing that the poet can do to change the movements of the sun or the coming of the day, no matter how clever his comparisons. From his perspective, the whole world is right there with him, yet he knows that his perspective is limited. This conceit of railing against the sun and denying the reality of the world outside the bedroom closes the poem with a more heartfelt (and more believable) assertion that the “bed thy center is.” It can be imagined that here he is speaking more to himself, realizing that the time he has with his lover is more important to him than anything else in his life in this moment, even while the spiritual meaning of the poem extends to the sun’s relatively weak power compared with the cosmic forces of the divine.
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