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A poem for April Fool's Day

The Sun Rising John Donne - 1571-1631

        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'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.

John Donne is one of my handful of favourite poets. He was one of the group known as the Metaphysical Poets - their style was characterised by the use of interesting, unexpected imagery, with up-to-date references to the latest discoveries in an era of exploration and expansion. The speaking voice is informal and, when read aloud, the poems follow the prosody of natural speech despite the intricate rhyme schemes and verse patterns. Essentially, they are very clever and ornate while sounding informal and often using surprisingly 'unpoetic' metaphors (see 'The Flea', for example).

I chose this poem because it is an all-time favourite, but also because the opening line seemed fitting for April Fool's Day.

And I thought I'd run through it with you, as well as recording a reading of the poem, which you can find here.

So, the first verse.

It was traditional to layer things in hierarchies - so, the natural world would have man at the top, then some animals like lions and the like and go down to fleas and ants; the heavens would have the sun at the top; actual Heaven would have God then the archangels and whatnot in the right order. So, to call the sun a 'busy old fool' shows an astonishing and novel lack of respect. Usually in poetry the sun is the brilliant force that shines out of my lady's eyes or whatever; here the sun is a prying old busybody. This is a great start as all the best stories open with a line that rouses curiosity or defies expectation.

The reference to windows and curtains - following the trajectory of the sun's rays - focuses attention on a domestic scene. And, these are lovers, we guess, in bed - very risqué! Lovers, Donne suggests, are an exception to the general order of things. Time for them is not like time for the rest of creation.

The poet goes on to order the sun around like an errand boy. 'Saucy pedantic wretch' - suggesting the sun is prying and moralising, like an old school teacher - and should carry on with work better suited to his station. This is cheeky and disrespectful, while the language is full of vitality and vivacity and the excitement of passion.

Notice, too, the sense we get of life outside the window - all the normal people getting on with their day. Outside, it's all activity and errands. Dull stuff, in comparison with what's going on within....

The final two lines recap the message that for love, time is of no matter. The 'rags of time' is a lovely visually stimulating image. It draws on the idea of time - or fate - as a tapestry, but tears it apart. And the very rhythm of that line, 'Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time' emphasises the point.

To the second verse. The first line seems to be the start of an encomium - a song of praise - to the sun, but immediately the poet pours cold water on the praise: 'Why shouldst thou think?' Then comes a clever little piece of sophistry - 'I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink'. Close your eyes and you don't see the sun at all! It's factually true - but the use of the word 'eclipse' points to greater celestial movements - of which Donne was well aware. It is not an empty image. The use of the word should rouse the sense of a real eclipse of the sun. It was only in 1605 that Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse!

Point of interest - apparently, we are blinking 10% of our waking life, and, thus, are unseeing.

The suggestion that his mistress's eyes could blind the sun with their brightness turns around the old trope of eyes shining like the sun. And the extreme claim that he can't afford to blink as he'd lose sight of his mistress for too long is continued in the claim that 'both th' Indias of spice and mine .. lie here with me.' This refers to both India and the West Indies - he's saying that all the globe's treasures are encapsulated in his lover, all the exciting new discoveries and uncharted territories of adventure and riches. This is re-emphasised by the idea that all the kings too (they are drawn together in him) are in their bed - within this domestic scene, everything of note in the world is matched and equaled.

I love the opening to the third verse:

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.

Read it aloud. The rhythm of that short line 'Nothing else is' powerfully drums in the message. It's relevant that woman is territory, man is ruler. But, hey, despite recently having a powerful Queen, sexual inequality was de rigeur.

The poet stresses that ultimate reality is in the bed, while the external world is a poor simulacrum. Donne knew a fair bit about alchemy - he's referring here to the ambition to create gold out of base metal.

He goes on to state that the sun's job is made easier by the contraction of the world into this one space.

The final section imagines the bedroom as the entire known universe - with the bed at the centre (as the earth was believed to be) and the sun circling it. This is great hubris, a metaphor expressing with gusto and power the conclusion of an argument that he has been making throughout this last stanza. It's neat and has tight internal logic.

The poem leaves me stimulated by the force of its claims and invigorated by the language and the imagery. Reading it aloud is just great, immensely satisfying. John Donne was a master, a magician of language. There is real alchemy here!

Imagine, in your home, as the sun's rays pass through curtains into your personal space, a space that has to become your world for the next however long, that you can relish this experience. That you can feel complete and satisfied in your domestic circumstances. Imagination (or these days, the Internet) can indeed bring both Indias of spice and mine into your room.

I don't mean to encourage us to believe we are the centre of the known universe, but I do want us to feel that these limited parameters can still offer us riches and inspiration. Our imaginations do not have to be limited by contingency.

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Apr 01, 2020


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