Poem Guide

John Donne: “The Sun Rising”

The poet tries to start a revolution from his bed.

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote a prose work called Paradoxes and Problems, and his life presents plenty of both: he was born a Catholic, gained notoriety for sacrilegious verse, and later in life became an Anglican priest. Though some of his poems defended libertinism and casual sex, he destroyed his first career by falling in love, and stayed with the woman he married until her death. His poems picked up a reputation for head-scratchingly bizarre intellectualism—one reason they're now called metaphysical—but some of them are the most deeply felt poems of romantic love in the language. One such poem is "The Sun Rising."

A former law student whose London relatives were persecuted for remaining Catholic after England had turned Protestant, Donne ruined what could have been a fine career at court when in 1601 he secretly married his employer's niece, Anne More. The next year, Donne's employer found out and fired him. Donne later found his calling as an Anglican cleric, giving dramatic sermons at London's most famous church. Until after his death, most of Donne's poems circulated only in manuscript: his friends copied them by hand, then showed them to their friends, who copied them into their commonplace books. (If you think of a book of poems as like a compact disc, then a commonplace book is like a mix tape, or an iPod; Donne's poems were like popular, unreleased MP3s.)

Donne liked to make long, odd comparisons, called conceits: he compared two lovers to the parts of a compass, for example, and likened a teardrop to a navigator's globe. Later poets such as Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) built whole careers by imitating those conceits. By the time Cowley died, though, conceits had gone out of fashion. When the influential critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) coined the term metaphysical poets, he meant it as an insult: "Metaphysical poets" such as Cowley and Donne, he wrote, used their conceits to present "heterogenous ideas ... yoked by violence together"; "they were not successful in representing or moving the affections." (In other words, they had too much head, not enough heart.) The term metaphysical stuck, though the judgment did not: when modernist critics and poets such as T.S. Eliot wanted to rehabilitate Donne, they defended something called metaphysical poetry, and praised the metaphysical conceit.

Readers like to believe that Donne's libertine poems—which insult women in general, or recommend sex with many partners—date from his law-student days, while the passionate, sincere-sounding love poems reflect his romance and marriage with Anne. As with Shakespeare's sonnets, nobody really knows. It's no wonder, though, that so many readers (myself included) imagine "The Sun Rising" as written to Anne. In it, Donne and his beloved wake up together, and Donne fears that someone will walk in on them: the unwelcome intruder is (not her father, nor his boss, nor a London stranger, but) the sun, which (here's the conceit) Donne treats as a person:
 

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.


"Prentices" are apprentices, who (like today's sullen teens) oversleep; "motions" are regular changes, such as sunset or sunrise, spring or fall. Donne and Anne (we might as well call her Anne) believe it's more important to be in love than to be on time: they won't let the hour, or the month, or even their relative ages, tell them what to do.

Nor do they want to get up out of their shared bed. From medieval French to modern English, there's a tradition of poems called aubades, about lovers who awaken at dawn: often they are adulterous or illicit lovers, who don't want to separate but don't want to get caught. Donne wrote such a poem himself, called "Break of Day." In "The Sun Rising," though, Donne and Anne feel right at home: there's no chance either of them will go anywhere, because their love has placed them where they belong, and everything else must reorient itself around them.

It follows that Donne is the master of the house; the sun, as a guest, should respect and obey him. Donne therefore reverses the conceit: having likened the sun to a person, he now gives a person—himself—the powers of the sun:
 

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.


Donne could occlude or outshine the sun (because he, too, is a celestial body), but he won't (because then his beloved would not see him, and he would not see her). Since everything important to Donne (i.e., Anne) stays indoors, not outside, Donne feels as if everything commonly believed important—spices from the Indian Ocean, precious metals from West Indies mines—remains securely indoors too.

In fact (here we see the extravagance of the conceit), everything and everyone of any importance is already in Donne's bed:
 

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.


The sun, having been shown the door, now gets asked to remain. The pronouns "I" and "she" disappear, leaving only "us" and "we"; thus combined, the lovers become the whole Earth, and since the sun's job is to warm the Earth, it ought to stay where the lovers are, and orbit them. Not only will Donne and Anne escape detection and censure, since the sun will never shine anywhere else, but the lovers won't even have to get out of bed.

Fancy metaphysical conceits differ from plain-Jane metaphors not just because conceits run all the way through a poem, but also because they often bring in the latest in Renaissance science and technology. Remember that the sun is like a person, but Donne is like a celestial body: he and Anne, together, replace the Earth. "Sphere" comes from the old, Ptolemaic cosmology (the one Galileo and Copernicus disproved), in which the sun supposedly went round the Earth (as did all other planets, each in its own "sphere"). In Donne's time, astronomers (and astrologers) still argued about what went around what. His interest in scientific controversy, in ongoing disputes about natural and supernatural truths, gave him metaphors for his poems. The same interest helps give this poem its emotional force: nobody knows if the sun goes around the Earth, or vice versa, that last line implies, but I'm quite certain that my life revolves around yours.

Donne's conceit describes the sun as a human being who walks in on the lovers, and then—with help from what was, to Donne, modern science—makes himself and his beloved into their own cosmic entity, their own world. You might see how readers who (like Johnson) thought poets should stay away from complex images found such flights of figuration distasteful. In "The Sun Rising," though—and in other Donne poems akin to it ("The Canonization," for example, and "The Relic")—the figure of speech is extreme for a very good reason: Donne's devotion is extreme, too, and only "heterogenous ideas yoked by violence together," only the language of the metaphysical conceit, can express the depths of his love.

Originally Published: April 12th, 2007

Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...

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  1. January 31, 2007
     Daniel H. Picker

    This comment has been removed at the request of the poster.

  2. February 20, 2007
     Justin

    I think what Burt has to say about Donne is great. I copied and pasted the text into word because of the picture they post next to the article did not create the voice I wanted in my head. With the picture there I hear a gentle passive voice explaining. To study something I need suites formal poses and a whole lot of telling.

  3. March 19, 2007
     Roderick Mills

    Somebody say something useful about "Air and Angel"
    Thanks

  4. March 29, 2007
     Heather Mattes

    Stephen Burt's explication is sensitive and insightful. He explains the Sun Rising without eviscetating Donne's depth of feeling or neglecting the keeness of its conceit. I will never read the poem the same way again.

  5. April 15, 2007
     Dame Ragnell

    I very much enjoyed Stephen Burt's reading of Donne, and applaud his decision to render his explication in a very straightforward and simple diction. Because of the richness and complexity of Donne's verse, many modern readers feel that Donne is too inaccessible, and they therefore miss the opportunity to delight in his wonderful word-wielding. I admit I'm a fan (I've "downloaded" all the Donne material that I can get my hands on).


    Though Daniel Picker's response (which verges on a scolding) seems at times to be urging Burt toward a more elevated, academic register, I think that would have been a mistake for this particular venue. I don't know the demographics, but I suspect that Poetry reaches a rather diverse audience of poetry lovers, not all of whom are--or even want to be--scholars. Such an audience may not be students of 17th century verse, and therefore not know the "well-known" details of manuscript culture, but probably enjoy having learned some of those details in the course of reading Burt's piece.


    I agree with Picker on his complaint about standardized spelling--it's a bad editorial intervention (you insult the poem and your readers by modernizing archaic spelling).


    As for Burt's i-Pod conceit, I loved it, and I found it to be very apt. But then again, I've always though of John Donne as a rock star.

  6. April 16, 2007
     The Vagabound Pen

    Well some of this review is basically false, written in the name of entertainment, especially in the first paragraph. In fact the review tries to make Donne seem like a character in Sex in the City, which is boring.


    Let's see, some of what Donne wrote "defended libertinism and casual sex" yet most courtly poems of the day featured bawdy references to sex. Donne's poems "picked up a reputation for head-scratchingly bizarre intellectualism"--maybe in the 20th century, but wit and intellectualism is a feature of Donne and his contemporaries.


    While I have not read all of Donne, I cannot think of a single instance of his "sacrilegious verse." Someone who says "Batter me, three person god," is a heathen? Please. Maybe he does not have simple religious ideas, but most truly religious people do not. For instance, the Grand Inquisitor. LOL.



    "

  7. May 8, 2007
     K. Silem Mohammad

    I think this is a fine overview of Donne's poem. To those who think it might be too "casual": please remember that early modern verse often feels impenetrable to many uninitiated readers, even smart, sophisticated ones, and lucid accounts like this provide the valuable service of making the intimidating seem approachable.


    Burt is quite right that Donne, along with other "metaphysical poets," was received as obscure by many readers, even in advance of Dr. Johnson's famous 18th-century remarks in "Life of Cowley." Nor does Burt anywhere imply that Donne's "libertinism" is particularly unusual; he simply acknowledges that aspect of his writing. As for the sacrilegious elements of his work, I think of that passage in "The Flea" where he likens the flea fattened with the blood of himself and his mistress to the holy trinity (and in fact says ironically that to kill the flea would for that reason be "sacrilege").


    In short, Burt's account contains nothing that any early modern scholar would find controversial. One might of course point out that the woman in bed with the poet, whether she is Anne or someone else, is figured as material property ("spice and mine"), or as an amalgam of "states" to be ruled over, in a way that inevitably undercuts the "romantic" tone of the poem for many modern readers.


    Modernization has powerful arguments to recommend it, as much as I confess to sharing the fondness that other readers have mentioned for original spelling. One is simply that it is less distracting to readers who may already be having difficulty on the level of argument. Another is that retention of the early modern spelling induces an "exotic" quality for us that distorts our experience of the poem's content by coating it over with a nostalgic veneer.

  8. May 10, 2007
     Daniel Picker

    This comment has been removed at the request of the poster.

  9. May 10, 2007
     Diqpi

    Keep up the great work!

  10. May 23, 2007
     Hannah Blake

    Hi - my AS level literature is coming up really soon and my teacher's evaluation of the text is not quite so insightful as Burt's. I really found it useful and now I understand the poem to a much more fluent level. I'm not too sure I need to go so far into it as Burt has, but I'm sure it goes just that bit beyond As level so I ought to impress examiners. Now I need a miracle for this poem to be selected out of a possible 13 of Donne's.

    Very helpful!

  11. September 3, 2007
     Fred Babbin

    PARAMITA

    Life is a dance
    In an unknowinf universe
    Without an audience.
    So we must give life
    it's perfect meaning.
    For God cannot.

  12. December 28, 2008
     The Anti Vagabound Pen

    Well i believe the name states my purpose but the vagabound pen is, for all intents and purposes, an idiot. You sir, have stated that you have not read all of Donne's work yet you have the audacity to comment on how Burt used a fallacious argument. If you had read the rest of Donne's poetry you would not have believed so, and Burt give an amazing breakdown of As The Sun Rises that lessens the blow to the psyche of the readers who are new to Donne who may have found it hard to comprehend his poetry otherwise. For all of our sakes, stop commenting on poetry and start reading more.

  13. March 2, 2009
     Lisa Meyer

    "The Sun Rising" is indeed a beautiful

    and romantic poem. Although the

    explication was pretty simple and basic,

    I enjoyed it. I am new to reading

    poetry and at times I find myself

    misinterpreting lines or stanzas.

    Seeing the conceits and reading about

    them in the explication was also

    something i enjoyed rather than the

    metaphors I am used to recognizing.

    The conceits really make the poem

    beautiful and interesting, and also show

    great importance. After reading the

    overview I can see that this poem could

    be written about Stephen Burt and his

    wife and although their love was

    forbidden in a sense they are at home

    and the sun is their only intruder who

    they eventually welcome. It is a

    beautiful poem about love and how the

    person you love may be all you need

    sometimes. Thank you for the very

    clear explication of "The Sun Rising".

  14. March 2, 2009
     Lisa Meyer

    correction to my last comment...John

    Donne not stephen Burt

  15. March 2, 2009
     niall

    There are no sacriligious poems or libertine poems in the Donee canon. Nothing that isn't equalled in the OT anyway. He liked sex. So? He meditated on faith.... maybe both day and night.

  16. March 4, 2009
     Tabitha H.

    I liked Burt’s explication of Donne's poem. What I liked most is how he explained Donne's origin. A writers origin and life experiences often explains a lot about certain usages of their poems. It can make the difference in certain words, tone, caesuras, meaning etc. Burt wrote how Donne liked to make long, odd comparisons called conceits. For instance, in Donne’s first stanza of “The Rising Sun,” he compares the sun to an intruder—a person. Burt also explained very well that fancy metaphysical conceits differ from the regular metaphors. He pointed out in the last two stanzas how Donne is like a heavenly body, for he and Anne together replace the Earth. Without knowing information like this about Donne, you might get a completely different meaning from this poem which indeed would be the wrong one. You may have had my initial notion which two people were having casual sex and got caught in the act. In truth they did get “caught” by the sun; however, they were lovers who, explained through the metaphysical conceits, expressed the depths of their love.

  17. March 8, 2009
     Paul Turner

    Stephen Burt's explication of "The Sun Rising" is one of simplicity and easy-to-understand language. He does not speak or explain the poem in a way that sounds foreign or overly specialized, giving his explication a broad audience.


    One of Burt's insightful interpretations in which i agree with is that of the sun being personified and its function in the poem. Such as how the sun just "walks in on the lovers," thereby interrupting their affair, and making the sun an intruder. As it is common sense, the sun can not literally "walk in" anywhere or on anything; therefore, it is given humanistic qualities and this is one of its personifications. Notice though, how Burt claims that when the sun does manage to fully intrude, that Donne somehow changes his mind and uses the sun for the benefit of being able to see his loved one and for it to revolve around them. In my understanding, or perspective, it seems that the conclusion here that is being made with the sun in relation to Donne and his lover is that they eventually join together to form their own personal universe. A universe with a sun that works perfectly to their own benefit; blocking out the rest of the world, while saving light only just for them to enjoy each other.

  18. August 6, 2009
     polin Rahman

    immortal love poem, i ever read.

  19. November 28, 2009
     divya

    Burt has construed the construction of Donne's poem"the sun raising" in a manner fit for commendation.Donne,writing at the end of the elizabethan period,does something very new.He uses strange comparisons for different feelings and emotions.He thinks that the comparisons and metaphors used by his predessors had been repeated over and over again and had lost their freshness and value.So he uses a "compass" for describing his love instead of a "rose".Thus he has been called as a metaphysical poet.

  20. December 19, 2009
     Rob Hughes

    The review is excellent although I would take issue with the "sacrilegious" judgement. It speaks of a separation between the divine and the carnal for which I have found no evidence in my reading of Donne. He treats both realms with equal beauty.

    A note on the material property issue.
    While this maybe off-putting for some modern readers it is an eternal truth of masculine ambition and feminine surrender. I find no disempowerment or insult in Donne’s treatment of female characters in his work. Feelings of this kind generated in the mind of the modern reader speak more of our uncertainty in gender rolls something Donne never doubted.

    I read with an open mind and am prepared to be proved wrong.