John Donne is Hot

My favorite part of the following essay is the idea that Donne’s poems were the equivalent of MP3s in their day.

“The Sun Rising” is so romantic it will burn your eyes.

by Stephen Burt

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, 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, Donne ruined what could have been a fine career at court when in 1601 he secretly married his employer’s niece, Anne More. Donne’s employer found out and fired him, and Donne later found his calling as an Anglican cleric who gave dramatic sermons. 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.)

It’s no wonder 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 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. Donne and Anne feel right at home: there’s no chance either of them will go anywhere, because 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 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.

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.

Stephen Burt teaches at Harvard University. His books include Popular Music, Parallel Play, and The Forms of Youth.

© 2007 by Stephen Burt. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at


~ by ericedits on February 19, 2008.

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