Poet's Pick April 28
John Donne: "The Sun Rising"
Selected by Patrick Donnelly
National Poetry Month 2017

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Patrick Donnelly's Poetry Month Pick, April 28, 2017

"The Sun Rising"
by John Donne (1572-1631)

        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.

        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 to-morrow late, tell me,
    Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
    Be where thou left'st 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.

        She is 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.


* Patrick Donnelly Comments:

The Donne Also Rises (from Mere Wit to Deep Feeling)

A couple of years ago I burst into tears while reading “The Sun Rising” to my mother on the phone. My mother (who turned seventy-six today, as I wrote this) is the long-accustomed auditor of my favorite poems (other people’s, and occasionally my own). If she doesn’t like this, she has only herself to blame, because she is the one who planted in me the idea that writing poetry is an estimable act, by reading her own favorites to me while I was still in short pants.

But she was surprised at my sudden tears, and so was I. I had been considering using “The Sun Rising” for an essay entitled “Poems that Move from Distance to Intimacy,” but ultimately I found other poems that enact that shift better. (If you’re curious, they were O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” and James Merrill’s “Family Day at Oracle Ranch.”) “The Sun Rising” does enact a shift, but not away from distance, because the tone of the poem at the beginning is already intimate. The move the poem makes is from a delightful display of wit in an erotic context to a serious consideration of what two people in love may mean to one another. The wit of poem persists to the end, but the speaker seems to discover through his associative play with ironical conceits a more urgent depth of love than he perhaps suspected. “The Sun Rising” poses absolutely credibly as a poem of the intellect until it ambushes the reader with strong feeling, and I think it was this lyric impulse springing out of the underbrush that surprised me into tears.

The engine of the poem’s comedy is hyperbole and inflation of the world-excluding self-regard that people in love sometimes feel: no one is as important as us, the poem says--if there is anyone else but us. And the speaker is very funny when he speaks so dismissively in the first stanza about the other occupations the sun shines upon: people with sad little jobs, bored courtiers, insects out of an animated Aesop’s Fables.

The poem creeps up on the emotion it eventually discovers by a series of advances and retreats which intensify that discovery. At the end of the first stanza, which is mock-cranky about the interruption the sun is making in the lovers’ tryst, the speaker works himself up to a very grand claim that exempts all lovers from the necessity to participate in the wounding contingencies of time. (The speaker’s complaint against the sun is very much in the tradition of the “aubade,” the poetic form of or about lovers separating at dawn. The half-serious argument between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet after their wedding night about whether it is the lark or the nightingale they hear belongs to the same tradition.)

Then in the second stanza Donne’s speaker retreats momentarily from grand diction into more comical play praising his beloved. But that praise quickly amplifies to a positively Biblical pitch in the last two lines of the stanza, and stays there until the middle of stanza three, when the speaker makes one final feint into rude insults heaped on the head of the senile, meddling sun. For the lovers, the night represented erotic and mystical Union, but daylight threatens a return to duality and separation, and the speaker is understandably reluctant to return there. So he presses forward to the outrageous affirmations that close the poem, throwing off all rhetorical caution and qualifications--of which this speaker never had any, anyway.

There’s no mention of marriage in this poem, which might have dissipated the atmosphere of arousal so essential to the tone (the sun’s rising interrupts another rise the speaker may have anticipated more eagerly). But if the unnamed sharer of the the speaker’s bed is Mrs. Donne (the former Ann More, who Donne married when she was sixteen, sacrificing any chance he might have had of a royal preferment), then the sun is doubly “done” in warming this couple.

If a love poem is going to go off the rails, it’s usually in the direction of sentimentality. Some very good poems generate excitement from how much sentimentality they risk, but “The Sun Rising” isn’t one of these. The energy of this poem comes instead from intelligence and rigor, intricate rhyme and meter, humor and irony. We trust that if this brainy, skeptical speaker has discovered a love worth praising, it isn’t a gilded toy, but gold to the core.

I’m a total sucker for a discovery of the kind the speaker makes in this poem. If a poet can uncover--REALLY uncover, not just manufacture for sentimental show--that there’s more love in the world than we thought, you will have me reaching for the box of lotion-impregnated tissues every time. Because there is nothing more breathtaking or lifesaving than the retrieval of real love in the dangerous and often unlovely landscape we live in.

That the author of this erotic aubade was--eventually, after his youth as a somewhat cynical rake--an Anglican cleric with a deeply-held Christian faith is just icing on the cake for me, in these days when fundamentalists and literalists are working so hard (as I suppose they always have) to tear body-love apart from soul-love. Donne had his own inner and outer conflicts reconciling eros and agape, but in his poems they are reconciled, in the body of language he provided. I don’t think it’s putting too great a burden on “The Sun Rising” to read into it a very close relative of the blazing spiritual love that lights up Donne’s more explicitly religious poetry. The speaker moves from praising his lover’s beauty and worth, with a sparkling wit that puts the focus on his own intellect, to an awed and exalted estimation of what he and she become together--which is quite literally the center of all things. The vessel of language Donne has constructed for this poem is strong enough to support his claims without bursting.

Or maybe it’s misleading to say that eros and agape are “reconciled” in the language of this poem, because that implies peace, smoothness, and regularity in the language. To the contrary, when you read the poem aloud (as I hope you will), you won’t find it easy to do. You need the virtuosity of John Gielgud playing Mercutio to pull it off properly, because the syntax is devilishly complex--even twisted--and the meter unpredictable. It’s a bravura performance on a poetic highwire, maybe for the beloved’s pleasure, in which sometimes-rough intensity of language demonstrates the difficulty of forcing cockiness and gratitude, whimsy and psalm, head and heart, to inhabit the same poetic space.

Patrick Donnelly:
Patrick Donnelly’s books of poetry are The Charge (Ausable Press, 2003, since 2009 part of Copper Canyon Press), Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin (Four Way Books, 2012), a 2013 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and Little-Known Operas, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2019. Donnelly is director of the Poetry Seminar at The Frost Place, Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, NH, now a center for poetry and the arts. With his spouse Stephen D. Miller, Donnelly translates classical Japanese poetry and drama; their translations in The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period (Cornell East Asia Series, 2013) were awarded the 2015-2016 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, from the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University.

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