At the beginning of the 17th century the love poetry of John Donne expressed a strong and independent spirit. In his lyrics, he combined passionate emotional intensity with keen and active intelligence displayed in logical analysis and verbal wit, especially the extensive use of puns, equivocations, and the conceit or extended metaphor. His use of ideas, images and language are absolutely fresh and unconventional. “The Sun Rising” is one of his most popular and successful metaphysical love poems.

“The Sun Rising” is built around a few hyperbolic assertions—first, that the sun is conscious and has the watchful personality of an old busybody; second, that love, as the speaker puts it, “no season knows, nor clime, / Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time”; third, that the speaker’s love affair is so important to the universe that kings and princes simply copy it, that the world is literally contained within their bedroom. Of course, each of these assertions simply describes figuratively a state of feeling—to the wakeful lover, the rising sun seems like an intruder, irrelevant to the operations of love; to the man in love, the bedroom can seem to enclose all the matters in the world. The inspiration of this poem is to pretend that each of these subjective states of feeling is an objective truth.

The first conceit, the extended metaphor in "The Sun Rising," is the speaker's treatment of the Sun as pedantic, annoying interruption.  The irreverence to the sun and the use of extravagant conceits are without precedent:

“Busy old fool, unruly sun

Why dost thou thus

Through the window and through curtains call on us?”

This kind of address of the sun reverses the tradition of hundreds of Petrarchan and Elizabethan love-poems, in which the sun is a touchstone of ecstatic tribute—“the golden eye of heaven”, “Hyperion” etc. However, any potentially comic effect is undercut by a note of seriousness, applied in a dramatic manner. Donne’s imagery, though bizarre and exaggerated as a ‘pseudo-argument’ asserts what every Platonist and Christian really believes. At certain moments, any man might be transported beyond mortality, in the eternal intimation of spiritual love. This belief leads Donne to gather his confidence and defy time:

“Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are rags of time.”

From the philosophical point of view, this statement goes triumphantly over the assumed contempt for the sun, attesting that the world fittingly symbolised in the “school-boys” and “sowre prentices”, the “country ants” and the “Court-huntsmen” is indeed tinged with illusions. In calling the material world unreal, the poet is saying with Plato, that even the world’s princes and potentates are mere shadows, an imitation in time of the timeless ideals.

Such complex of ideas remains in the second stanza too. The sun and the lovers have actually changed roles, with the mistress for an instant becoming the sun, and her “eye-beams” blinding the usurped lord of light. Love is not a mere reflection of the lover’s needs, subjective and transient; it is homage to beauty revealed and revered, expressed through the second extended metaphor of the poem:

“She is all States, and all Princes, I,

Nothing else is:

…compar’d to this

All honour’s mimic…”

Donne is here praising mutual love as an experience of supreme value that opposes the transitory material world and finally transcends it. But remarkably, transcendence of the physical world and mortality is accomplished not by denial of the body but by its fulfillment.

On reaching this conclusion of supreme value, the lovers can invite the sun to carry on his business for they are beyond the reach of the co-ordinates of time in their world “contracted thus”:

“Shine here to us, and thou art every where

This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere”.

This world of love contains everything of value; it is the only one worth exploring and possessing. Hence the microcosm of love becomes and more important than the macrocosm.

By using his unusual conceits, or far-fetched metaphors, John Donne utilizes his remarkable ability to draw a wistful sigh of love from any reader while shocking and twisting brain cells at the same time.  It is this innovative method of combining such passion and great intellect that entices poets like T. S.  Eliot to imitate him, and others like Samuel Johnson to criticize him.

Last modified: Tuesday, 25 July 2017, 1:37 AM