Metaphysical Conceit in “The Sun Rising”

The most striking quality of Donne’s poetry is the use of metaphysical conceit which is a figure of speech in which two farfetched objects or images of very different nature are compared. It surprises its readers by its ingenious discovery and delights them by its intellectual quality. A metaphysical conceit is usually classified as a subtype of metaphor – an elaborate and strikingly unconventional or supposedly far-fetched metaphor, hyperbole, contradiction, simile, paradox or oxymoron causing a shock to the reader by the obvious dissimilarity, “distance” between or stunning incompatibility of the objects compared.

The main conceit or metaphor of “The Sun Rising” is the personification of the sun into an old man – a "busy old fool" – whose business it is to get everyone out of bed and on the way to work. The persona adopted by the poet sees fit to argue with the sun, and this creates a comic opening to the poem. This is extended when, in the second stanza, he claims that he is stronger than the sun, because he can "eclipse and cloud" his beams just by blinking. This is of course true, but it does not really mean that the sun is not "so reverend, and strong". At the end of the poem he treats the Sun more gently: his "age asks ease" so they are in the position to help him, since he only has to warm the two of them, and he warms the whole world.

The secondary conceit is the metaphor that the speaker’s lover is "all states" – she is all the treasures of the world. As a result, therefore, he is "all princes". Donne elevates the importance of the relationship using this hyperbole.

He combines this hyperbole (the speaker has all the power in the world) with litotes (deliberate understatement for literary effect), in his deliberate reduction of the importance of everything else. Measurements of time, i.e. "hours, days, months", are likened to "rags", all honour is "mimic" (ie fake), and wealth is "alchemy" (ie it isn’t real). He sums it up with the statement "nothing else is". This combination of the two techniques demonstrates how great their love is. Metaphorically, it is the only thing in the world – and so their room becomes the whole "sphere" for the sun.

Donne never ceases to impress by showcasing the strong emotions reflected by the conceit, network of images and the extraordinarily witty and ingenious language. It is the amazingly original conceit that makes his poems with a common love topic so uncommon. Donne’s poems are quite capable of stirring the emotions, and no matter how uncommon and intellectual his conceits, his poems would not work without a seed of genuine feeling at their centre. “The Sun Rising”is a classic love poem in the history of world literature.

Last modified: Tuesday, 25 July 2017, 1:45 AM