John Donne, that Feisty Old Rascal

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that life was ever about lying flat out under the sun in a hot July. At these times, I heartily recommend eating and poetry. And eating poetry! (No, don’t).

As a strategy for getting through the dark, you can’t really go wrong with eating and reading. I’ve been baking with the radio on and a toasty oven door to rest my bum against. Mm hmm.

And I’ve been indulging in the most effective remedy of all – words, books, and poetry. One of my favourite poems – and really, I’ve rarely met a poem that I got on with – is The Sun Rising by John Donne.

I have tried to memorize poems before. For exams, not as an exercise in masochism. None of them stuck. When I first read this poem, I knew it must be love because the last stanza just stayed with me. There is something so spectacularly brazen, wilful and joyous about it. Reading it now is eerie and wondrous: there was sunlight, falling through the window of a snug little bedroom in some Elizabethan household several hundred years ago, and a young couple lying in that sun, resisting any obligation to get out of bed that day.

The blessed ordinariness of this scene, and the way John Donne roots it in the humdrum of life – the sounds of schoolboys on their way to classes floats through the window of the bedroom – makes it all the more tender and secret and special, and makes you love the poet that lies in bed with his luffer, addressing the sun in a swaggering tone – ‘busy old fool’ – and telling it to go bother somebody else. The dawn song of lovers sad to be parting this is not; John Donne makes it something else entirely. It is riotous, intelligent, supremely confident. She is ‘all states’ – every country, every sense – and he is ‘all Princes’. The bedroom is the world, and whatever is outside the bedroom walls is a poor likeness (‘Compared to this, all honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy’). It is breathtakingly full of itself, which is just the point – here is that wondrous adolescent certainty that your own experience is really all that there is.

Joie de vivre. Sunlight. The present moment. Young love. A man with a good moustache. What is not to love? Here’s the poem itself so you can make up your own mind, along with a picture of John Donne’s handsome face.

[Quick and highly uneducated portrait of John Donne: poet from the days of yore who wrote a lot of amorous (some might say, lecherous) poetry in his wild youth and then sobered up a bit and wrote a lot of very pious religious poetry when he was older. He spent his inheritance on ‘womanising, literature, past times and travel’ according to Wikipedia – and what splendid choices to make.]

      The Sun 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 schoolboys 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 shoulds’t 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 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 centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

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