Analysis of Literary Technique in John Donne’s “The Sun Rising”
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John Donne, author of many works of literature, including “The Sun Rising”, is a master manipulator of literary techniques, which he uses to convey a powerful and profound message to the reader. Published in 1633 in Donne’s book entitled _Poems_, “The Sun Rising” is a poem depicting two lovers disturbed from their bed by the rising sun. Donne’s poem, “The Sun Rising,” is comparable to woven fabric, each literary element tightly woven on the loom of Donne’s poetic mind. Donne’s expert manipulation of each literary technique, making each literary element work to its fullest potential in conveying his underlying theme, is what defines “The Sun Rising” as such a splendid bolt of cloth and an admirable work of literature. The literary elements Donne utilizes to achieve these means are expressive use of imagery, artful incorporation of important themes which heighten the intensity of the poem, and brilliant manipulation of the sound devices that create the flowing mood within the poem, ranging from terse to euphoric.
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’s all states, and all princes I; Nothing else is; Princes do but play us; compared to this, All honour’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 Donne’s primary strategy for making “The Sun Rising” a powerful, effective poem is through incorporation of powerful, vivid imagery that draws the reader into the poem, offering a glimpse of Donne’s thoughts. Donne’s foremost image in “The Sun Rising” is the sun as a nosy “busy old fool who nettles in romantic relationships” (Bloom 16). Donne is clearly upset at the sun for its rude interruption of Donne and his wife, as evidenced by his statement in lines one through three of the poem: “Busy old fool, unruly Sun, why dost thou thus, through windows, and through curtains, call on us?” The image Donne uses, comparing the sun to a nosy old bat, draws the reader to Donne’s side in his argument against the sun. This occurs through the reader identifying with Donne in his protests against the sun, as almost no reader can truthfully state that there has never been an instance in which they did not want to get out bed after being awakened prematurely.
Bloom endorses this analysis in his summation of Donne’s image as “the sun is reduced to a large cosmic alarm clock, calling the poet back to the daylight world of education, business, and politics; its task no more than to “chide late schoole boyes, and sowre prentices” (5-6)” (27). Bloom’s reference to lines 5 and 6 of the poem refers to Donne’s next descriptor of the sun. The second image Donne utilizes is the sun as an overly formalistic, inordinately precise being who scolds “late school-boys and sour prentices” (6). Donne’s choice of diction, in this instance, is responsible for the vividness of the image. A third significant image evident in the poem is Donne’s acceptance and welcome of the sun into his bed, “This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere” (30). This image signals Donne’s submission to the sun, juxtaposed with his initial anger at the sun in the beginning of the poem. This juxtaposition is clear evidence of movement from one point of view to another, otherwise known as a resolution, and its incorporation into “The Sun Rising” signifies Donne’s peace-making with the sun.
A second prominent feature of “The Sun Rising” are Donne’s underlying themes, evident in the poem. Donne’s entire purpose in writing “The Sun Rising” lies in his expression of his love for his wife. Grierson concurs, evidenced by his statement “Donne’s interest is his theme, love and woman, and he uses words not for their own sake but to communicate his consciousness of the surprising phenomena in all their varying and conflicting aspects” (29). The second part of Grierson’s statement helps the reader to understand Donne’s strange choice to convey his theme of love through images of adultery, when Donne’s true intent is to depict the love between himself and his wife. Grierson statement explicates this paradox by explaining that Donne’s diction isn’t meant to be taken literally as Donne’s choice of words lies not in their actual meaning, but the words’ denotation, the thoughts of love and the emotion these thoughts convey. A second theme in Donne’s “The Sun Rising” is the theme of secular love in divine concepts (Daley 3). Daley posits:
Another theme found in Donne’s love poetry is the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, mirroring secular love in divine concepts and expressing spiritual truths by linking them to secular experiences. In “The Sun Rising,” the speaker calls the sunbeams “reverend,” an adjective that alludes to a higher level than the physical; by analogy, the mistress also takes on more than physical characteristics. The lovers mirror in their mutual love the Incarnation, since in them the world and its material and spiritual values are contained: “All here in one bed lay.” (20) (Daley 3)
Daley’s statement contains several complex ideas that require close analysis for complete comprehension. To begin with, Daley asserts in this statement that Donne is referring to a higher authority by describing the sun’s rays as “reverend” (11). This description is paradoxical, according to Daley, as Donne is describing the secular, non-spiritual sun with an adjective that refers to a “divine concept” (Daley 3). Further complicating this paradox is the fact that Donne’s image of the sun is not meant literally, but is an expression symbolizing his theme of love. Therefore, Donne’s adjective “reverend” (11) is not modifying Donne’s image of the sun, but is modifying his description of the theme of secular love, through utilization of an adjective referring to a higher authority, which is a divine concept.
Warnke, in “John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays,” parallels Daley’s assertions by stating “Donne’s poems of elevated love assume, with the Platonic tradition, that love is above all spiritual, and that the important aspect of the lovers’ union is the joining of their spirits” (35). Secondly, Daley’s reference to the Incarnation openly refers to God, which explains Donne’s true meaning in line 20: “And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.” Donne’s wording of this statement denotes that the kings that the sun saw yesterday are now in the lover’s bed. What Donne is actually referring to is the “Incarnation” (Daley 3), which describes God, since it is in Him that all existence is contained. Therefore, by saying “All here in one bed lay” (20), Donne is stating that all of existence is contained in the lover’s bed, thus expounding upon the theme of secular love in divine concepts.
A third prominent literary device Donne makes use of is manipulation of the sound devices in “The Sun Rising.” The sound devices Donne manipulates in “The Sun Rising” include the rhythm of the lines in the poem, the phonetic stress of the syllables in each line, and the syntactical arrangement of the lines in all three stanzas. Perfecting the balance of these three elements is what defines a poet as an artist, as only an artist has such skill and patience. Further testimony to Donne’s skill as a poet is the fact that “the sound in Donne’s poetry not only echoes the sense but in part communicates the emotion.” The fact that people are better able to determine the meaning and emotion of spoken word as opposed to reading words from a page is widely accepted, and illustrates Donne’s poetic skill, as he weaves the emotions he attempts to convey into the sound of his poetry. Donne’s primary means of accomplishing this intricate and formidable task is through manipulation of the rhythm of “The Sun Rising.”
Donne is able to manipulate the rhythm of the poem by putting the rhyme scheme in a specific order. The rhyme scheme of “The Sun Rising” is ABBACDCDEE. The rhyme scheme of the poem directly affects the speed and “cadence” with which the poem is read. By rhyming the ending words in each line in a particular scheme, Donne gives the poem a specific “flow.” The flow of the opening of “The Sun Rising” possesses a “quick tense quality,” and gives the poem a choppy feel. “Its texture is sinewy and often irregular. It is not smooth verse, but it is exact and musical.” However, the closing lines of “The Sun Rising” possess a sense of “tranquility and sensuousness” (The Poetry of Donne 3). Additionally, John Donne manipulates the sound devices by placing words that are critical to the message of the poem in “positions” that correspond with a phonetic stress in the meter. (Daley 2) In example, Donne places the words: bed, center, walls and sphere in line 30 tactically so that they fall under a vocal stress in the meter, which coincides with the fact that these words are most critical to understanding the message of line 30. Additionally:
Donne uses meter and intricate syntactical arrangements to convey the superiority of the love portrayed in “The Sun Rising.” “He employs an uneven syllable count in his lines by varying his line length from short, pithy lines with four syllables to longer iambic pentameter lines. His manipulations of the syllable count allow Donne to operate with different levels of stress and syntactical arrangement. The terse four-syllable lines create a forceful tension in each stanza. (Daley 2)
In conclusion, Grierson exquisitely summarizes “The Sun Rising” in his statement:
“In Donne’s poem one feels the quickening of the brain, the vision extending its range, the passion gathering sweep with the expanding rhythms, and from the mind thus heated and inspired emerges, not a cry that might stay its course, but a clearer consciousness of the eternal significance of love, not love that aspires after the unattainable, but the love that unites contented hearts” (32).
Ultimately, Donne is very effective at conveying his theme of his love for his wife, through his poem, “The Sun Rising.” Grierson’s summation of “The Sun Rising” is apt and well written. Donne is able to fulfill Grierson’s descriptor fully, by virtue of his exceptional and expressive use of imagery, masterful incorporation of themes that amplify the intensity and meaning of the poem, and brilliant manipulation of the sound devices responsible for the creation of the flowing mood in John Donne’s, “The Sun Rising.”
Bloom, Harold, ed. _John Donne Comprehensive Research and Study Guide_. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1999. Print.
Daley, Koos. “The Sun Rising.” _Masterplots II: Poetry_. 2nd ed. Pasadena: Salem, 2002. _Literary Reference Center_. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.
Gardner, Helen Louise, ed. _John Donne: a Collection of Critical Essays._ Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Print.
“The Poetry of Donne.” _Masterplots_. Definitive Revised ed. Pasadena: Salem, 1976. _Literary Reference Center_. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.
Warnke, Frank J. _John Donne_. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Print.