Separation of Two Worlds Within John Donne’s “The Sun Rising”
Published in 1633, John Donne’s poem “The Sun Rising” represents an era of metaphysical literary strategies. In order to capture the engrossing love of the poem’s two characters, Donne craftily uses personification, symbolism, hyperboles, and assorted metaphors to characterize the lovers. All in all, the poet strives to use language to suggest romantic love’s superiority to the physical world. While in most of Donne’s love poetry the speaker assumes a haughty and argumentative tone, “The Sun Rising” instead focuses on the power of mutual love and its accompanying emotions. Pretending each subjective state of feeling is transformed by the lovers into objective truth, the speaker suggests he and his lover are the center of the universe and they subsequently transcend the world around them. Throughout the poem, Donne uses specific rhetorical techniques to create an isolated world for his two lovers. Ultimately, the displacement of the external world in place of the inner, emotional sphere serves to highlight the importance of human love as it exists within a permanent physical universe.
In “The Sun Rising,” the most important conceit concerns the personification of the sun into a “saucy pedantic wretch” (5). To begin the poem, the speaker lies in bed with his lover watching the sun rise through windows and curtains, signaling the end of their night together. Referring to the sun as a “busy old fool,” the speaker asks why it can not go bother “late schoolboys” and “sour apprentices” instead of he and his lover (1,6). Claiming love does not know “hours, days, months,” the introductory stanza reveals the speaker’s desire to obtain mutual love within a confined realm, free from the physical world’s time constraints (10). To reinforce that desire, the second stanza finds the speaker closing his eyes to block out and ignore the sun’s bright rays. By closing his eyes, he excludes the physical world from his self-created romantic safe-haven. Ultimately, the speaker imagines a state where lovers are not constrained solely to the night; instead, they are allowed to make their own time as necessary. Furthermore, he reinforces the importance of his love by comparing his lover to all the countries in the world and himself to their kings. Because all the world is contained in their bed, the sun’s job is made easier by only having to shine light on them. By choosing to personify the sun as a “busy old fool,” the poet stimulates dialogue between the abstract (sun) and the concrete (lovers) (1). Noticeably, this dialogue becomes important to provide a comparison between the sun’s strength and the speaker’s claim he is stronger than the sun because he can “eclipse and could” its beams by merely blinking (13). By presenting the sun as a person with deteriorating authority, the lovers are increasingly able to disregard external influences and transcend time constraints of the physical world. Ultimately, the persona deliberately confines himself and his lover from life outside the bedroom, emphasizing the notion that their romantic love exists independently from and superior to the material world.
In “The Sun Rising,” Donne uses both personification and symbolism of the sun to demonstrate the power and strength of his relationship. In the first stanza, the sun represents the passing of time. As indicated in lines 9-10, the sun marks the passing of days, months, and years. Yet, the passing of time is considered to be an enemy to the speaker’s love. With that being said, the lovers hope to challenge the sun’s authority and transcend transitory social constructs of time. For example, lines 11 and 12 focus on mocking the sun as if it were a physical being. Acknowledging the sun’s “reverend and strong” beams, the speaker then questions if the sun is more powerful than the love he feels (11). In line 13, he admits he can simply shut his eyes as a means for ignoring the sun’s growing pressure on time. Although when he closes his eyes, the sun will continue shining for the rest of the world, it no longer exists within his isolated universe. With this act, the speaker emphasizes that the sun has no real power of what he and his lover do and the couple promptly rejects its presence as an authority over their lives. Hoping to convince the sun nothing could ever break the bond between the lovers, the speaker again personifies the sun through wordplay near the end of the poem. Claiming the sun is only “half as happy” as they lovers, the speaker hopes to make the sun envious of their relationship while simultaneously highlighting sun’s lack of control in the face of romantic emotions (25). In conjunction, the windows and curtains present in their bedroom provide a barrier between the euphoric realm of love and the knowledge that their love exists within the mundane universe that the sun represents. Likewise, if the “busy and unruly” sun penetrates the curtain’s provided exclusion, it will undermine the speaker’s desired isolation from the external sphere (1). In short, the sun is presented as a daunting figure that threatens the lover’s privacy and confinement. However, the two lovers ability to conquer and reject the sun’s power and authority highlights Donne’s purpose to convince readers that love usurps all obstacles (including intangible obstacles such as time).
Throughout the poem, Donne focuses on one specific hyperbolic assertion to provide a clear distinction between the actual world and the world of lovers. In the second half of the poem, the speaker seeks to prove their “bed thy center is” (30). By comparing his lover to “all states” or the whole world, the speaker implies all the world’s treasures lie within her. Similarly in lines 20-21, the speaker mentions this explicitly, explaining how all the beautiful things the sun illuminates in the world each day is combined within his lover. Subsequently, he is “all princes” (21). Here, the speaker again exaggerates his situation to emphasize the power and strength of his love as so great, even princes want to imitate them (“Princes do but play us”) (23). By using this hyperbole, the poet situates his lovers at the center of the universe while simultaneously subordinating their surroundings entirely. For example, measurements of time (“hours, days, months”) are reduced to “rags,” honor is deemed “mimic” (fake), and wealth is considered “alchemy” (10; 24). Furthermore, the speaker summarizes his thoughts by stating “nothing else is” as important as the moment he shares with his lover (22). Ultimately, the rhetorical devices used within the poem work to demonstrate the power of the speaker’s all-consuming love. Metaphorically, their love is the only important thing in the world and likewise, their bedroom walls become a “sphere” for the sun (30). All in all the speaker’s constant banter with the personified sun, hoping to deny realities of the physical world existing beyond the bedroom, holds true to the heartfelt assertion that the “bed thy center is” (30).
Overall, Donne seems to be praising the supreme value of mutual love that transcends boundaries imposed by the physical world. Unlike many other Donne love poems, the speaker here appears heartfelt and sincere to his lover. In this poem, each literary device helps to shape the speaker’s figurative state of being. By the poem’s end, the lovers have created a miniature universe that is more important than the real world operating outside their bedroom. All things considered, the displacement of the outside world is used as a rhetorical technique to demonstrate the energy and intensity of mutual love.
Donne, John. “The Sun Rising” Seventeenth Century British Poetry: 1603 – 1660. Ed. John Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York: Norton, 2006. Page 25. Print.