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Friday, June 17, 2011

Number 189: John Donne "The Sun Rising"

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 to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left'st 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 honour'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.

-- John Donne

Hap Notes: John Donne (1572-1631) is the best known and most beloved, I think, of the "Metaphysical" poets. This sun poem is, I believe, is a "conceit"; an extended metaphor which changes one's perception of a thing, in this case the sun and the lovers in bed.

Donne himself lived many lives, he was educated, poor, a lawyer, traveled, had mistresses, was an elected member of Parliament, had a wife with whom he had 12 children and then became an Anglican priest of some note. Several of his published sermons have had a lasting impact on the language; "No man is an Island" and "Do not ask for whom the bell tolls" are both Donne's work from the same "Meditation."
Most people are also familiar with his poem "Death Be Not Proud." Donne and Shakespeare were contemporaries.

Donne's poetry, most of which was circulated among his friends but rarely published, had a big revival in the 20th century when Yeats, Eliot and Empson found his work to be extraordinary for its often abrupt, urgent and intelligent thoughts and word play. I can't say that I can wholeheartedly agree with Empson when he says Donne was interested in space travel, nor can I intelligently refute it, so Empson's essay "John Donne, The Spaceman" always leaves me a bit breathless because Empson and Donne are quite alike (it's purposeful on Empson's part) with wordplay, puzzles and metaphysical arguments disguised as metaphor. It's all very heady stuff.

In this charming poem of love, the poet is talking to the sun, scolding it for waking up the lovers and telling it to go chide and wake up school boys and apprentices, court-huntsmen and ants. Note that this list is full of labor, the poet and his lover are in an elevated state because of their love, no mere workers. In fact, the poet says, the sun is nothing compared to the brightness of his lover's eyes. He can close his eyes and shut out the sun but he could never do that to his lover because he could not stand to be parted from the vision of her.

He goes on to say not only are they not mere laborers who should be awakened by the sun but that they are all the kings and countries of the world, the lovers have made their own universe. So, if the sun, which is so old, needs a rest from waming the world, it need only shine on the lovers and it will be warming the whole universe. The lovers are the center of all things, the sun, with its bright cheer, is only half as happy as the lovers who are everything. Ah, love!

So the sun, once thought to revolve around the earth, then thought to be the center of the universe, is displaced to a satellite around the lovers who are now the center of the universe they have created with their love.

There's a lot more than can be mined in this poem but that should get you started.

Donne is far too big a subject for a Friday, but his wit and word usage is so brilliant and so unlike Shakespeare that it's as if they had been born on different planets. They are two shining points in literature with Donne being a bit less florid and Shakespeare a bit more hot-blooded. Donne has passion tempered with reason, Shakespeare has passion spiced with high drama. Donne wryly reasons, Shakespeare intelligently feels. These are glib explanations, though, I admit.

Here's a good (and famous) Donne quote:

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."


"Be thine own palace, or the world's thy jail."

You can find more Donne here:

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