John Donne’s The Sunne Rising is an imitation of the medieval European tradition of aubade – a morning love song sung by the lover when the lovers separate at dawn. These twelfth-century aubades were essentially love poems in which the lover lamented the end of night’s comfort with daybreak. The poem is also influenced by Ovid’s Amores that were playful and erotic love elegies. Though Donne borrows from the two poetic traditions of Ovid and aubade, he subverts them by reinventing the conventions.
The Sunne Rising is addressed to the sun. The poem has the poet speaking in the voice of a lover who reproaches the sun for disrupting the pleasures of the night with his beloved. The conceit of the sun runs throughout the poem and the sun is presented as a vain voyeur, a peeping-tom who bothers the lovers through the curtains and windows and interferes in their lovemaking.
Though it is the sun that determines the diurnal rhythm, it becomes an irksome nobody for the lover as the lovers are subject to the motions of this sun like the rest of the world. The lover upbraids the sun as “saucy”(impertinent) and “pedantic wretch”(haughty) and asserts his superiority over the sun by calling it ”a busy old fool”. He condescendingly instructs him to stop bothering them and instead wake up “late schoolboys”, apprentices to various trades, court’s huntsmen preparing for king’s riding out, and the “country ants” who go harvesting. The image of the “country ants” here refers to both the real insect ‘ants’ and the field laborers/farmhands engaged in agriculture. “Court huntsmen” here carries a veiled reference to King James who was fond of hunting. Despite its importance, the impertinent orb is dismissively dispatched to discharge his diurnal duties and not bother the lovers.
The sun is a symbol of life; a marker of time, hours, and seasons and reins the activities of the world. But the lover refuses to recognize the authority of the sun and flagrantly debunks it by asserting that his love is eternal and not a slave of time or seasons: “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime…” Admonishing the sun, Donne asks him what makes the sun think he can control the meeting of the lovers, and goes on to claim that their love is not bound or enslaved by the movement of the sun. The sun holds no authority over the life of lovers and is instead curtly asked to go about his daily business.
The sun is criticized throughout the poem. It is denigrated as “unruly” for intruding into the lives of the lovers and is pulled down from its exalted pedestal. The poet-lover further claims that the sun “beams” are not so powerful and he can easily eclipse/block the sun by merely shutting his eyes, something he would not do because he cannot bear to lose sight of his beloved even for a second. The sun is stripped of all its grandeur that in turn is imparted to the beloved’s eyes which the lover says are more radiant than the sun.
Every insult thrown at the sun becomes a complement to the beloved. It is by using the conceit of the sun that the lover elevates his beloved above all the fragrance and the riches of the world.
The sun is rendered peripheral with its glory imparted to the beloved upon whom the lover claims sovereignty. The beloved is “all states” and the lover is the “prince” ruling over her. And in his power over his beloved, he becomes a king/ruler of the most extensive state. There is an allusion to the imperialistic enterprise of his day when Donne mentions East Indies known for its perfumes and spices and West Indies famous for gold. The lover commands the sun to “look” around the globe and report “tomorrow” all the richness and treasures of India that he says are concentrated in the beloved who lies with him in bed, proclaiming that compared to these riches, what he has in his bed pales the treasures of India. All the honors, riches, and alchemy of this world are meaningless before their love. “All honor’s mimique, all wealth alchemy” refers to Plato’s conception of the material world as temporary where all honor/fame is unreal and all wealth bogus. For the lover, the entire world is elusive and only his love is real. It is the lovers that constitute the entire world and all that is meaningful and worthy is concentrated in their love for each other.
In their status as lovers, the couple is exalted beyond the temporal. The world with all its riches is concentrated in their bed as they look down on the sun and treat it with disdain. The sun becomes a part of the material world that is unreal while the lovers present true reality — timeless and eternal in their love for each other. Seasons, climate, or time does not alter the intensity of love in the poet’s mind, as the poem reiterates lovers’ seclusion and exclusion from the prying eyes of the hostile world and grants love permanence by elevating lovers beyond the temporal world.
Paradoxically enough, the lover who was initially impatient at the appearance of the sun, now orders the sun to stay forever in his room. The sun is “old” and should not take pains of going around the world. And since the lovers constitute the whole world, the sun should make the lovers his center and revolve around them by making their bed its center and walls its orbit and shine on them. In the final lines, contempt gives way to patronage as the sun is asked to shine on the lovers, with the couple taking the place of decentered earth: “shine here on us, and thou art everywhere”. For the lover, it is the beloved who encapsulates all the richness and grandeur. And since his beloved is the essence of all kingdoms, glory and wealth, the sun should shine on them and not take pains to go around the world.
Though the heliocentric nature of the universe had long been discovered and known, Donne still refers to the sun going around the earth and gives love the centrality he believes it deserves/commands. For the lover, the sun may be a mighty symbol of life and a marker of time, but the lovers are above it in the boundlessness of their love that defies the limits of both time and space. The lovers will keep their own time and the force of their love will make the sun go round.
The Sunne Rising has Donne reiterating his belief in the sovereignty of love over every other human and natural activity. It is male heterosexual love that finds expression in verses where a man praises his beloved. However, the power that the lover wishes over the beloved needs a closer inspection. Catherine Belsey questions this kind of love expressed in terms of “conquest” with a “wholly silent women” and goes on to identify “sexual politics with the cultural analysis of femininity and masculinity”. She contends that Donne’s poems reveal an inherent gender hierarchy through the construction of this ‘self’ and the ‘other’, where the ‘self’ is the superior male/coloniser/ruler/powerful and the ‘other’ is the inferior woman/colonised subject/ruled/weak. Women are objectified and become the subordinated ‘other’ – a kind of possession to be gazed at, desired and conquered.
Though many of Donne’s love poems are addressed to women, the women in them remain silent and subordinate to the male voice. His other poems Elegie: to his Mistress Going to Bed and The Good-morrow also present sexual relation in terms of imperial politics where the beloved’s body becomes a territorial possession to be mapped and discovered. According to Thomas Docherty “what is being sought by the poet is a recognition of his maleness, recognition of his phallus, and an acknowledgment of the power which its potency is supposed to give him”. Implicit gender hierarchy is revealed through the metaphor of colonization, where the lover becomes a ‘prince’ ruling over his ‘states’. With the lover rightfully declaring mastery over his beloved, the poet seems to make it clear that the rule of the female monarch does not mean patriarchal society is rethinking gender roles and reaffirms the old hierarchy where men are superior and women play a subordinate role.
The tone of The Sunne Rising is both commanding and patronizing and the language, colloquial. Metaphors ranging from science to colonial explorations are employed to assert dominion over the beloved. Each of the three stanzas is ten lines long and follows the rhyme pattern of ABBACDCDEE. The poem addresses the sun by way of ‘apostrophe’— a figure of speech that directly addresses an object, in this case, it is the sun by which the poet replaces Galileo’s heliocentric concept of the universe with the geocentric theory where the sun goes around the earth.