Episode 40

The Sun Rising by

John Donne 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne.

Poet

John Donne

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

The Sun Rising

by John Donne

        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 the India’s 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 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 every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.


Podcast transcript

This poem captures one of the greatest feelings in life – waking in bed with your lover and feeling that all love, all happiness is contained within the four walls of the bedroom.

It was probably written early in the 17th century, but it feels as fresh and vigorous and relatable as if it were written yesterday. I mean, who among us has had this experience, and seen the sun peeping in through the windows, and not thought, ‘Already?!’ and not wanted to stop time, to stop the sun rising, to stop all the clocks, so that we will never have to leave this blessed moment?

And obviously, there are quite a few tell-tale details, in the language and the description, that clearly place this poem in days of yore. But the basic situation, with the lovers and the bed and the daylight seeping through the curtains, hasn’t changed in the 400 years since John Donne wrote this poem. It feels like a timeless moment.

Which is entirely appropriate, given that the central argument of the poem is that love is a timeless condition:

Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

And this sense of timelessness, is why the speaker of the poem is so outraged that the sun, whose passage across the sky embodies and symbolises the passage of time, should dare to intrude on the lovers:

        Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

This is still funny, isn’t it? The idea of the sun as a busy old fool who doesn’t understand young love. And yes, it’s quite ageist, but judging from the literature of the time, early 17th century England was a very ageist place.

I can’t help thinking of Hamlet’s comment on Polonius – ‘these tedious old fools’. And later on, when he’s just stabbed Polonius through the arras, and killed him by mistake, Hamlet says ‘Thou findest to be too busy is dangerous’, which was a proverbial saying… and it’s entirely possible that Donne had seen Hamlet before writing this poem, as he was a contemporary of Shakespeare and a keen theatre goer.

So right from the first word of the poem, the speaker contrasts his shared joy with the ‘busy’ world outside, and he gives us a wonderful glimpse of the daily business or busyness that is going on outside the bedroom window:

        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;

Prentices, i.e. ‘apprentices’, were very much a feature of London life in Donne’s day – they were the unmarried young men learning their trade, and part of the joke is that they were far more likely to be ‘unruly’ than an ‘old fool’ like the sun. And I think there’s a bit of a pun in the first line, because on a first hearing it could easily sound like ‘unruly son’, a father telling off his son, but of course the speaker of the poem is a young man telling off his elder.

The detail about the King going hunting helps to date the poem – we don’t have an original manuscript or a date of publication, but Donne lived under two monarchs, Elizabeth I and James I. And as James was a king rather than a queen and also famously keen on hunting, that makes it likely that this poem was written in the early 1600s, after the accession of James I in 1603, and while Donne was still young enough to contrast his youthful love with older generations.

And in Donne’s case, youthful love went hand in hand with youthful arrogance, and a precocious cleverness which must have been annoying to anyone who found themselves on the receiving end:

        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:

And this is still funny too, isn’t it? The insolence of telling the sun that he can ‘eclipse’ it by simply winking, so that it disappears from his sight. But it’s also very clever, to show by a kind of verbal sleight of hand, how the greatest orb, the sun, can be eclipsed by the smallest one, the human eye. It feels like the answer to a riddle that no one has asked.

Donne was a pretty arrogant poet and person. But even by his standards, this is quite breathtaking. Because, of course, his arrogance is turbo-charged by the ecstasy of love and sex, all the neurotransmitters in his body are firing on all cylinders.

And of course it’s absurd; the sun is only eclipsed for him, not for the world. He’s shutting it out but it’s still there. So there’s a bit of a suggestion of an ostrich with its head in sand.

But it’s also glorious – this is the voice of someone drunk on love, he’s speaking in hyperbole, exaggerating without expecting us to take him literally. And this is very true to the experience of being in love: it’s empowering, transfiguring, and often quite ridiculous, all at once.

And the nonsense continues throughout the second of the three stanzas of ‘The Sun Rising’:

        If her eyes have not blinded thine,
        Look, and to morrow late, tell me,
    Whether both the India’s 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.

Everybody knows that if you look at the sun, you will be blinded, not the sun. But Donne is deliberately and joyously oblivious to this. And he’s moved on, from stopping time to collapsing space, when he says that both the Indias, the one in Asia plus the West Indies in the Caribbean, have left their usual positions and are lying in his bed. In other words, the earth has moved.

Not satisfied with dissolving the laws of time and space, Donne then proceeds to what in some ways is an even more extravagant and daring claim. First, he says the kings have also moved into the bed. Which might sound like a little too much company, but in the final stanza, he makes it clear that he and his lover are actually supplanting the kings:

        She’is all States, and all Princes, I,
        Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compar’d to this,
All honor’s mimic; All wealth alchemy.

So he is subverting the social order as well as the dimensions of space-time. He’s saying that he and she are the true ‘princes’. The real princes are in fact the imposters, ‘play[ing] us’, i.e. ‘acting us’. Honour is just mimicry, and wealth is ‘alchemy’ in the sense of a ‘fraud’. And this is quite possibly the boldest and most absurdly arresting line in English poetry:

Nothing else is.

On the one hand, this is how it feels when you’re that intensely in love, and Donne is absolutely faithful to the experience.

But this passage also contains more than a hint of anxiety. Because clearly, it’s not true that ‘nothing else is’. Lots of things are – as the speaker will remember when he opens his eyes and draws the curtains and looks outside. And eventually he and she will have to go outside and deal with all their duties and responsibilities, and engage with the ‘busy’ world they have done their best to ignore and dismiss.

So it probably won’t come as a great surprise, if you didn’t know already, to learn that John Donne was a very ambitious man, whose dreams of a glittering career at the court of James I were dashed by his impetuous and secret marriage to Anne More. Who just happened to be his boss’s niece; the marriage provoked the fury of Anne’s uncle and father, and ruined his reputation among the kind of people whose favour he needed to succeed at court.

So no wonder he had a chip on his shoulder about ‘busy old fools’ interfering with his love life.

And if you want to know more about the known facts of Donne’s life, including the likely circumstances in which this poem were written, there is an excellent new biography by Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. But today, I am going to keep the curtains discreetly drawn on those details. Because I don’t think that knowing any more about the real life situation that may be behind the poem would add to our appreciation of it. In fact, I think they would diminish the poem.

Because what ‘The Sun Rising’ does, gloriously, is capture a universal experience, when we feel we are taken out of ourselves and transfigured by love. So all the everyday details – the curtains and the window and the schoolboys and prentices and huntsmen and so on, are like flimsy stage props, the bare minimum we need to picture the scene.

Anyway. Having dissolved the physical universe and the social hierarchy, the speaker’s tone shifts in the final lines, he becomes more mellow and expansive. It’s a cliche in movies for lovers to lie back and share a cigarette after their exertions, and it’s even possible that Donne and his lover were lying back and sharing a pipe together, given that tobacco had arrived in England by this time, as he says these lines:

        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 every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

This is a lovely ending, and I’m pleased to say he sounds a lot more satisfied and a lot less anxious and envious here. It’s still very witty, but it sounds more like affectionate teasing than a brutal attack.

There’s even a hint of respect and affection towards the old sun, when he says ‘thine age asks ease’, and points out that his wit can save the sun a lot of work: given that it’s the sun’s job to ‘warm the world’, ‘that’s done in warming us’ – because, 400 years before the supergroup USA for Africa, Donne is claiming that ‘we are the world’.

And he proves his absurd proposition with a beautiful closing couplet:

Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

English pronunciation in England has changed quite a bit since Donne wrote this, so I think it’s safe to assume that ‘where’ and ‘sphere’ would have been a nice full rhyme at the time.

And that final image of the centre and the sphere, sounds like a good fit at first hearing, but it also requires a bit of teasing out. Because there have been differing opinions on what he means by the terms ‘centre’ and ‘sphere’, but I’m going to go with John Carey, who wrote a terrific book about Donne, John Donne, Life, Mind and Art.

So according to Professor Carey, the ‘sphere’ in question here is one of the spheres of the ancient system of astronomy, named after Ptolemy, where the earth was at the centre of the cosmos, and the sun and the start and the planets moved around the earth, in a series of concentric spheres. So the bed is not the centre of the sun itself, but the central point around which the sun revolves.

So Donne is literally saying he and his lover are the centre of the universe. I told you he could be arrogant! But it’s the arrogance and enthusiasm of youth, which we’ve all felt from time to time, so I think we can forgive him.

And if we have another look at that final line, it has another dimension, that’s maybe not apparent on a first reading, at least it wasn’t for me. He’s saying that the walls of the room, which are presumably straight rather than curved, are the ‘sphere’ of the sun. In other words, he’s claiming to have squared the circle.

This was of course a famously difficult challenge, first described by the ancient Greek mathematicians and conclusively proved to be impossible in 1882. But poets rush in where mathematicians fear to tread, and this is all of a piece with the bravado and wonder of young love; and also, with Donne’s very original poetic imagination.

Most people wouldn’t necessarily think mathematics to be a particularly fertile ground for romantic metaphors, but Donne clearly did. In another poem, ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, he famously compared himself and his lover to the points of a compass used for drawing a circle. And much later in his career, when he was the reverend Doctor Donne, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, he opens one of his Holy Sonnets with another extraordinary image of squaring the circle:

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise,

Isn’t that amazing? ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners’ – he’s making it as clear and explicit as he can that he’s bending time and space through his imagination, as he reaches out for a transcendent dimension.

So as we can see, Donne had an incredibly vivid and original imagination, powered by a very clever mind. And this is a magnificent love poem, easily in the top ten, if we were to trivialise things by compiling such a list. He was also a phenomenal versifier, so last but not least, I want to take a moment to appreciate his skill in this department.

The poem is in three stanzas, all with the same structure, which as far as I know, is unique to Donne. He varies the metre, mostly from iambic tetrameter – ti TUM, ti TUM, ti TUM, ti TUM – to iambic pentameter, which has an extra ti TUM. And in every stanza the second line is a dimeter, meaning only has two ti TUMs. You can hear all three line lengths in the opening four lines:

        Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

So notice how sharp and taut that first line is, because it’s just a tetrameter:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,

Then we get the really short line, which makes the question stand out sharply, like the accusation it is:

Why dost thou thus,

And that’s followed by two iambic pentameters, which have a more expansive and discursive feel, where he’s giving us more details of what the sun is doing, and teasing out the implications:

Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

So this is slightly reminiscent of the blank verse series we did, where we looked at the way that iambic pentameter like this is a really good fit for meditative, thoughtful exploration of a topic.

Now, according to the scholar, George T. Wright, John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney, who was a little older than Donne, were the first two poets to regularly mix up iambic pentameter with shorter lines in this way. He points out that in all of Shakespeare’s songs, which often mix lines of different length, there is not a single line of iambic pentameter.

And I’m grateful to Professor Wright for doing all the research and checking this, and verifying the feeling that this is something new and startling and exciting in English poetry – the movement from shorter lines to the longer iambic pentameter, mimicking the movement of Donne’s thought, speeding up and slowing down, as he reaches for analogies and superlatives and considers their implications, and argues with himself and the world at large in the course of a poem.

I mean, he spends so much time thinking and talking and arguing in this poem, that the woman who is supposed to be the central event and topic is a little bit relegated to the sidelines. It’s easy to imagine her looking over from the other pillow and asking ‘Are you all right, darling? You seem a bit preoccupied.’

And this dazzling effect is heightened by the rhyme scheme, which is as variable as the metre. So with letters standing for the rhymes at the end of lines, the first four lines go ABBA, which is reminiscent of the Petrarchan sonnet we looked at last month – except, remember, the line lengths are all different, so this feels much more unsteady than the stately sonnet.

The next four lines rhyme CDCD, which is more like a quatrain in a Shakespearean sonnet – except, in both cases, he’s rhyming a tetrameter with a pentameter, which keeps us off balance. And I think we should pause to savour the fact that in the middle stanza, he rhymes ‘me’ with ‘me’, which takes self-absorption to a whole new level.

And so it’s very satisfying, and also frankly a bit of a relief, when he ends each stanza with a rhyming couplet, formed of nicely balanced iambic pentameters.

Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

The 20th century hypnotherapist Milton Erickson used to say that if you confuse your subject a little to begin with, then they will be more receptive to your direct suggestions, and I think there’s a little bit of that effect at play here – after all the intellectual fireworks and the shifting rhymes and meters throughout the stanza, the closing couplet maybe rings a little truer because of its reassuring regularity. You know, if you’ve ever been staggering around on board a ship being tossed about at sea, you grab hold of the nearest railing with a renewed appreciation of the state of balancing upright on two legs.

And if you’re thinking you’ve experienced this effect somewhere before in a poem, then maybe you’re thinking of Episode 34, where we also heard shifting metres and rhymes, in the ‘mingled measures’ of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. You may recall me drawing attention to Coleridge’s use of an occasional shorter line, as a counterpoint to the tetrameters and pentameters that predominate in that poem.

And this technique, of throwing in an occasional shorter line in sharp contrast to the longer iambic pentameter, seems to have caught on after Donne had shown what could be done with it. Shortly after Coleridge, John Keats used it to delightful effect in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, and in the mid 20th century, Philip Larkin did the same thing in the title poem of his collection, The Whitsun Weddings. We might even hear an echo of it in Clare Pollard’s free verse poem, ‘At Peckham Rye’, which she read for us last month and talked about the way she likes to contrast very short and long lines.

There’s definitely something a little song-like in ‘To the Sun Rising’ and other poems of Donne’s romantic youth, so it’s no surprise that his best-known collection was titled Songs and Sonnets when it was published after his death. And as we’ve seen, it has something in common with Shakespeare’s songs and with Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’.

But whereas Shakespeare’s songs are musical, and Coleridge’s poem is definitely magical, I would say Donne’s verse is more mercurial – which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘subject to sudden changes of mood, volatile, lively and unpredictable’. And of course, the word comes from the ancient Roman god Mercury, who the dictionary describes as ‘the god of eloquence and dexterity’, as well as ‘the messenger of the gods’.

Which all sounds very appropriate and applicable to John Donne, a quicksilver poet who was able to stop time, collapse space, upend the social order, and dazzle his readers with extravagant language that leaves them gasping with pleasure and astonishment.

 


The Sun Rising

by John Donne

        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 the India’s 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 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 every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.


John Donne

John Donne portrait engraving

John Donne was an English poet, scholar, soldier, secretary and cleric who was born in 1572 and died in 1631. He is best known for the love poems published after his death under the title Songs and Sonnets. But he is also one of the greatest religious poets in the English language. As Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London , he preached sermons that held his audience spellbound, and some quotations from the sermons are as famous as anything he wrote in verse. His poetry also includes notable satires, elegies and translations from Latin. He was buried in old St Paul’s cathedral and his monument, including a statue of him wrapped in his shroud, can still be seen in the present St Paul’s Cathedral.

 


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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