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Analysing Donne's The Sun Rising: as a Metaphysical and Philosophical Love Poem

At the beginning of the 17th century the love poetry of John Donne expressed a strong
and independent spirit. He combined in his lyrics 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. All these
features in some sense work in a principle of contraries. Dr. Johnson, noted Donne’s
fondness for conceits, which he called “discordia concors”, the “discovery of occult
resemblances in things apparently unlike”. This kind of peculiar poetic vision and
practice, however, had much to do with the kind of culture he inherited, a culture, which,
based on medieval world view and ethos, suddenly seemed to change in the face of the
Copernican science and new geographical discoveries. Donne faced a moral vacuum and
experienced the unstable nature of the universe. So he tried to find out a resolution, first
in the Neo-Platonic theory and then finally in the traditional Christian religion. The Sun
Rising may be said to be an intellectual exercise in reversing the contemporary
Copernican heliocentric system, in which the sun was given a dominant centrality. Donne
makes the lovers undercut that centrality by playing the part of the decentred earth and
asserting their former supremacy in the geometric Ptolemic context.

It has been suggested, for instance, by J.B. Leishman that the poem was partly inspired
by the 13th elegy of the 1st Book of Ovid’s Amores. . But speaker’s irreverence 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?”

At one 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. In this respect, the poem can be marked as an inverted
aubade, in which the sun is pursued through three stanzas of sustained exhilaration.

However, any potentiality 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 wrapt 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:

“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
fulfilment. Whereas Neo-Platonist like Baldasar Castiglione suggests in his The Book of
the Courtier, that the lover can ascend to spiritual love only by leaving behind the impure
body, Donne insists that transcendental spiritual love is also sexual indeed, that lovers
transcend the physicality of existence by embracing the body.

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.

At the beginning of the 17th century the love poetry of John Donne expressed a strong
and independent spirit. He combined in his lyrics 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. All these
features in some sense work in a principle of contraries. Dr. Johnson, noted Donne’s
fondness for conceits, which he called “discordia concors”, the “discovery of occult
resemblances in things apparently unlike”. This kind of peculiar poetic vision and
practice, however, had much to do with the kind of culture he inherited, a culture, which,
based on medieval world view and ethos, suddenly seemed to change in the face of the
Copernican science and new geographical discoveries. Donne faced a moral vacuum and
experienced the unstable nature of the universe. So he tried to find out a resolution, first
in the Neo-Platonic theory and then finally in the traditional Christian religion. The Sun
Rising may be said to be an intellectual exercise in reversing the contemporary
Copernican heliocentric system, in which the sun was given a dominant centrality. Donne
makes the lovers undercut that centrality by playing the part of the decentred earth and
asserting their former supremacy in the geometric Ptolemic context.

It has been suggested, for instance, by J.B. Leishman that the poem was partly inspired
by the 13th elegy of the 1st Book of Ovid’s Amores. . But speaker’s irreverence 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?”

At one 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. In this respect, the poem can be marked as an inverted
aubade, in which the sun is pursued through three stanzas of sustained exhilaration.

However, any potentiality 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 wrapt 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:

“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
fulfilment. Whereas Neo-Platonist like Baldasar Castiglione suggests in his The Book of
the Courtier, that the lover can ascend to spiritual love only by leaving behind the impure
body, Donne insists that transcendental spiritual love is also sexual indeed, that lovers
transcend the physicality of existence by embracing the body.

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.