The Happiness of Monogamy

October 14, 2009

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, October 14th, 2009. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, The Happiness of Monogamy. The Poetry Foundation is debuting a new online resource this week. It’s called “The Poetry Learning Lab”, and it’s geared toward teachers and students, but it’s really for anyone who wants to learn more about poetry. Check out all the multimedia features at Eric Selinger is an English professor at DePaul University in Chicago. His article “Ten Poems I Love To Teach” can be found in The Poetry Learning Lab. One of those poems he loves to teach is “The Sun Rising” by John Donne. Donne of course was a famous Anglican preacher later in life, but as a young man he was known as something of a ladies man. Eric Selinger says that “The Sun Rising” is an aubade; a poem or song about lovers having to part at dawn.


Eric Selinger: The way the aubade usually works is, the sun is coming up and I’ve got to go before your husbands or brothers catch me. Or, you’ve got to go before my husband or my brothers catch you. But it’s a poem of parting. The sun has come up, the ordinary world of social duties and social roles and obligations has returned, and whatever delicious thing that’s been going on in the night has to come to an end. That’s the aubade.


Curtis Fox: And that’s the tradition he’s writing this poem in, but he’s doing something much different.


Eric Selinger: Very much so.


Curtis Fox: It begins with him addressing the sun.


Eric Selinger: Yep.


Curtis Fox: Let’s hear this poem. We’re going to do something different this time. We’re going to be playing one stanza at a time —


Eric Selinger: Oh, terrific.


Curtis Fox: And then we’re going to chat about it right afterwards. So here’s the first stanza. This poem is read by Michael Stuhlbarg actually, who’s the star of the new Coen Brothers movie, “A Serious Man”. Here is Michael Stuhlbarg reading “The Sun Rising” by John Donne.


Michael Stuhlbarg: 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.


Eric Selinger: Here you’ve got a speaker who’s really enjoying himself. Donne was trained as an attorney, he’s a wonderful arguer. Here he is turning all of that force of rhetoric, persuasion, brilliance of mind to an absolutely impossible task which is to convince the sun not to rise, and to just bugger off and bother somebody else.


Curtis Fox: Yeah, but the intended audience is presumably a woman lying next to him in bed.

Eric Selinger: Absolutely. And I like to get my students to watch for, what are the things that he’s saying that might be particularly appealing to her as she listens, and what are the moments in the poem that he might take a false step? The first stanza I don’t think he gets himself into anything —


Curtis Fox: No, I didn’t hear anything in there.


Eric Selinger: I think he’s doing fine so far.

Curtis Fox: Let’s go to the second stanza then, see where he gets in trouble. Here we go.


Michael Stuhlbarg: 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.


Curtis Fox: That’s actually a complicated stanza. If you could paraphrase that for us, what’s he saying there.


Eric Selinger: In this stanza he says to the sun, why do you think your sun beams are so strong, so reverent and strong? All I have to do is shut my eyes and they’re gone.


Michael Stuhlbarg: … I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink


Eric Selinger: But I’m not going to do that, because then I’d have to stop looking at her. “I would not lose her sight”.


Curtis Fox: That is flattery of a very high level.


Eric Selinger: Sure. He knows how good he is. He ramps it up a little in the next line …


Michael Stuhlbarg: … If her eyes have not blinded thine, / Look


Eric Selinger: Not only do I not want to stop looking at her, but her eyes are brighter than you are. I’ll be honest, when I’m teaching this poem, I’m teaching it to a mix of students. Young men and young ladies. Generally speaking, you’ll have at least a couple of the students who will say at that moment, he’s already starting to lose his touch. The first bit was good, the I don’t want to lose her sight so long, but the bit about her eyes blinding thine—


Curtis Fox: Too much. Over the top, right? Jumping the shark.


Eric Selinger:(LAUGHING) And notice where he goes with it …


Michael Stuhlbarg: … Look, and tomorrow late, tell me, / Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine / Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.


Eric Selinger: Take a look at her, then go away, come back tomorrow late, and tell me whether the two Indias, the India where the spices are and the India where they have mines for gold and diamonds and so on, whether those Indias are where you left them or whether they lie here with me. And she is where the spices are. You know, that’s good, that’s nice, but it begins to shade into a certain amount of self-flattery. This isn’t about praising her anymore, this is starting to sound like he’s bragging to the sun about what he’s got. And the final couplet sends that implication into centre stage.


Michael Stuhlbarg: … Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday, / And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.


Eric Selinger: It’s a little like Titanic right? I’m king of the world. I’m all the kings in the world.


Curtis Fox: That’s almost like a rap boast.

Eric Selinger: It is like a rap boast. There’s only one problem, or there’s a two-fold problem. Either he has completely obliterated the fact that there’s a woman there, it’s all about him. Or he’s done this weird gender bending thing, where he’s the king and she’s the king, and that means there’s a pair of kings in the bed, and wait a minute! So there’s some real tension right there at the end of the stanza; tension because the rhetoric is slipping a little bit out of his control. One of the questions I like to ask my students at any given point of the poem is, why isn’t the poem done yet? What tension hasn’t been resolved, what issue raised at the beginning hasn’t been worked through? You can really see that, or you can hear that, in action when we tune into the third stanza and listen to how the start of the third stanza doubles back and says again, revises what he was saying at the end of the second stanza.


  Michael Stuhlbarg: 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.


Eric Selinger: Think about what he’s done there. He’s gone from, I’m all the kings in the world, and he doubles back and revises that metaphor.


Michael Stuhlbarg: … She's all states, and all princes, I,


Eric Selinger: In the Renaissance, in Renaissance political theory, there’s a kind of mutuality between a state and it’s feudal ruler. You can’t have a state without a king or a prince. It doesn’t work, it’s anarchy. But similarly, you can’t have a prince or a king without a country. They define one another. So he’s gone from, I’m all the kings in the world and here are some of my territories, to an actual mutual relationship. Which is good, that’s better than what he was saying before.


Curtis Fox: He’s doing better.


Eric Selinger: And then the next line …


Michael Stuhlbarg: … Nothing else is.


Eric Selinger: — is a breathtaking line. He suddenly realized that nothing else in the world exists.


Curtis Fox: Or matters.


Eric Selinger: No, but this is the thing. It’s not just that it doesn’t matter. I always break in … Class, I’ll break into a chorus. What was that Lauryn Hill song? “Not even if my boss should call, not even if the sky should fall, because nothing even matters”. It’s one thing to say nothing else matters. He takes it one step further; nothing else is. This is it, this is the real world, you and me here in this bed, or she and I here in this bed. Then he refines or thinks through the thought. Princes? What are princes?


Michael Stuhlbarg: …Princes do but play us; compared to this, / All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.


Eric Selinger: This is the real world. Princes play us. Honor is just a copy of this, a mimic of this. Wealth that everybody wants? They’re trying to turn the lead of coins and spices and everything else into the gold which is companion of love, mutual love. This is good stuff.


Michael Stuhlbarg: … Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,


Eric Selinger: So we’re back to saying we, and we’re telling the sun something new about us as a couple, which is, we’re happy. And he hasn’t said that before. For the first time he’s made an emotional confession. What it is that he really wants to say is, we are happy. You’re half as happy as we are.


Michael Stuhlbarg: … In that the world's contracted thus.


Eric Selinger: And now he’s back into, like I say, he’s a lawyer. He’s a brilliant lawyer. He can’t possibly argue the sun into not shining in their room. So what’s he going to do? He’s going to change his goal. He’s going to try to convince the sun to do what it was going to do anyway, which is to shine in on us.


Michael Stuhlbarg: …  Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be / To warm the world, that's done in warming us.


Eric Selinger: Come on in, shine on in. It’s the opposite of what he was telling the sun to do in stanza one. Now he can’t lose.


Michael Stuhlbarg: … Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.


Eric Selinger: I don’t think he’s getting out of bed for a while after this one. One of the things that makes this poem fascinating to me in the history of love poetry is the idea that you can have a couple that are happy together, and that that happiness includes sexuality but isn’t limited to it, isn’t restricted to it, and that the private sphere can be an incredibly satisfying and restorative place. It’s not an aubade that says, the sun has come up and we’ve got to go back to our social duties, and that means I have to leave you because this is adulterous or illicit. Here you’ve got a poem that says the sun comes up and I don’t want to go, and I don’t have to go, and in fact, I’m not going to go. (LAUGHING) It’s part of the whole culture of love that we are the children of.


Curtis Fox: You can hear Michael Stuhlbarg’s reading of the entire poem without interruption in the new Poetry Learning Lab on, where you can also fine Eric Selinger’s essay, “Ten Poems I Love To Teach”. Let us know what you think of this program where our motto is —


Michael Stuhlbarg: … Nothing else is.


Curtis Fox: Email us at [email protected]. The music used in this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.




Teaching John Donne’s poem “The Sun Rising.”

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