The Sun Rising by John Donne

Although there have been a great many influential writers, thinkers, and poets over the course of time, many of the topics of the oldest poems remain relevant and interesting to readers today. Despite the fact that societies have progressed and changed a great deal since poems such as The Sun Rising were written by John Donne, the emotions and ideas that fuel such works are strong enough and relatable enough that those poems, despite their context existing in a time long past, are very much a topic of interest even today. Written at some point during the life of Donne (it isn’t clear when, though he lived from 1572 to 1631), it remains an interesting piece of literature today.

 

The Sun Rising Analysis

  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.

It is immediately obvious that personification is going to play an important role in this poem when the titular object — the sun — is referred to as an “unruly,” “busy old fool.” The sun is calling to the narrator of The Sun Rising “through windows, and through curtains” — which is what the sun does, after all. It rises, and shines through the edges of curtains. The “calling,” then, is simply the narrator and whomever they are with, that it is morning. The narrator begins to list off all of the other things the sun could be doing — reminding oversleeping schoolchildren that they are going to be later for school, beginning the day for noblemen, anything other than waking up the speaker and reminding that they need to begin their day. The last two lines, as well as the “us” in the third line, suggest that the speaker is not alone, but are rather waking up alongside a lover, and that because love is timeless, the rising sun should leave them alone, rather than force them to leave each other’s company in the bed.

The structure of The Sun Rising is noticeably unusual. Although it does rhyme, it does not follow any particular pattern from beginning to end. The first four lines, for instance, follow an ABBA pattern, but each line has a different syllable count. The result is a poem that does not flow especially well, but does properly convey the frustrated mindset of the narrator who only wants to be with his beloved.

               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.

The narrator wants to shut the sun out of existence; it is easily possible to simply close the eyes, clear the mind, and forget that day has even come. Unfortunately, now that the speaker sees the person they spent the night with, they no longer want to close their eyes and not be able to see; grudgingly, they are forced to accept the presence of the rising sun.

The rest of the verse questions the worth of leaving a bed shared with a loved one; they reference the “Indias of spice and mine,” referencing spice foraging and mining operations in the Eastern and Western Indies at the time, and seem to suggest that everything will run exactly as it is supposed to whether they leave their bed or not — so they can check on a mission that is, at present, meaningless, or they can remain with each other.

               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.

This verse does much to emphasize the enormous importance the narrator places on their lover — she is everyone and everywhere he ever needs to be or know, and nothing else exists while the two are together. Honour and wealth become meaningless, princes seem poor when compared to what they have. Returning to the personification of the sun, the narrator addresses it once more, stating that its presence is not needed, since its purpose is to warm the world, and he feels warm. The Sun Rising ends on a somewhat cryptic note, but suggests that the narrator’s universe consists of two people and one room only — that bed is the centre of the universe, and the walls of the room are its edge, and so when that room is warmed, the whole of the world is to them.

 

Historical Context

John Donne lived in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in London, England, born to a fairly well-off family although there were struggles after his father died while he was young. He was raised Roman Catholic, although the Anglican Church was still very influential at the time. He began a promising political career by using his inheritance to travel across Europe, and was able to work as the secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Seal, a prominent position in the English government.

Although he held great promise, his political career was cut short after he fell in love with, and secretly married the Lord Keeper’s niece, Anne More near the end of 1601. Eventually, her uncle and father (also a prominent and influential member of the government) found out and arrested John, as well as the minister who married them. When the marriage was proved valid, the two were released, but Donne was fired from his position and eventually became a cleric in the Church of England. During this time, John and Anne bore twelve children, the last of which was a stillborn, born after a difficult pregnancy that also took the life of Anne More. John Donne, as well as his ten surviving children, grieved heavily for their loss.

All records suggest that John Donne loved his wife deeply, and it makes sense to think of her as being the woman written about in this poem. It could be a simple tribute to the time they were allowed to spend together after Donne’s release from prison, or it could be a reference to the time they spent together before their marriage was discovered; that the reason the sun rising is such a dismaying realization is because it means their time together is ended, since they cannot be seen in public for fear of discovery. To say that she is the only important thing also makes a little more sense in the light of Donne’s political career, since he would have held a very important position — but it is not important at all, compared to what he has with the love of his life, who is more important and more warm and life-affirming than even the sun rising.

Read more poetry analysis:   Spit in my face, you Jews (Holy Sonnet 11) by John Donne

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2 Comments

  1. Ramjan Ali August 8, 2018
    • mm Lee-James Bovey August 13, 2018

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