Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 01 Jul 2019

The Sunne Rising by John Donne

I can remember all too clearly the sense of gloom I experienced at the age of 17 when I saw the reading list for the ‘A’ level English Literature syllabus I had opted for as I started my first year of Further Education studies. I was mad keen on reading by then (it was the zealotry of a new convert) but all the texts on my reading list seemed so old – where was all the modern stuff? What seemed to me to typify this focus on the old and dusty was the poetry selection – Helen Gardner’s compilation of The Metaphysical Poets in the Penguin edition.

Truthfully, I’d never heard of the Metaphysical Poets prior to this but the prospect of verses written back in the 17th century filled by soul with concrete. What possible relevance could they have to me as I set out in the new decade of the 1970s?

But of course I was young and stupid – and completely wrong. I can’t overstate just how much studying the poems of John Donne, George Herbert & Henry Vaughan were vital to putting me on the path I’ve travelled ever since. Crucially, they helped give me some kind of understanding of how the writers of the past are really our contemporaries in that they lived, loved and died with all the same concerns we have for ourselves.

Few poets have spoken as directly to me as John Donne and I can still quote large chunks of his secular work from memory – not because I set out to learn them but just because I’ve read them so often and with so much pleasure that they have lodged themselves in my increasingly feeble brain. It would be daft to say that I’ve got a ‘favourite’ John Donne poem but if I was pushed to identify the one that first captured my imagination it would have to be The Sunne Rising :


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 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.


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 centre is, these walls, thy sphere.


That old carthorse of a literary critic, Samuel Johnson, coined the term ‘metaphysical poets’ in his essay on Cowley in ‘Lives of the Poets’ but he was cashing-in on a phrase he’d picked up from John Dryden who said of Donne:

“He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love. In this...Mr. Cowley has copied him to a fault.”

And in many ways this is a key to understanding what poets like Donne were all about – they were a conscious reaction against the dominance of love poetry that was all about a man (the poet was always a man) putting the idealised object of his passion on a pedestal and by doing so making her an impossible symbol of female virtue and beauty. What Donne was all about was making his lover a real person – a sensual and sensuous woman with the same desires of the flesh as men. No untouchable alabaster necks and ivory complexions for Donne – real women that love with all of the body and soul. Donne revels not in courtly love but earthy passion.

And the directness of his message is mirrored in the colloquial spirit of his language. It’s direct and muscular – the language of the ordinary man. It’s also, at this point in his career, the language of the humanist. Life is all about men and women not gods and goddesses and he’s happy to use analogies and metaphors of the day, ones not previously associated with poetry.

In The Sunne Rising the opening verse is a blast of ill-temper aimed directly at the sun for having the temerity to rise and end the night of passion he and his lover have spent together. He chides the sun for its intrusion – 'saucy pedantic wretch' – and the hours, days and months that the sun measures out are the ‘rags of time’. The bedroom of the lovers is the only legitimate world and in that world his lover shines brighter than any external sun – 'She’s all states, and princes, I / Nothing else is'.

He ends by giving some advice to the sun: if its duty is to shine on the world that can be achieved by simply shining on these two lovers because they are all that exists.

It’s a storming, raging poem celebrating new, sexual passion – a blast of poetry from a voice we can see and feel to be essentially modern even though it was written in 1633. I like to think of Donne in his secular poetry as a ‘punk poet’ of his time, kicking over the aging traditions with a clarion call from the ordinary man.

I’m delighted to say that Helen Gardner’s The Metaphysical Poets is still available today from Penguin – albeit in an updated jacket from the copy I had back in the 1970s.

Get one.


Terry Potter

July 2019