John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” exemplifies Donne’s art because the poem issues from Donne’s exertion to shift the truth of an occasion and circumstance: the form of the poem comes into being as Donne imagines a truth that cannot be, except in the poem itself. And nothing happens in the poem that is not exertion and force, an attempted transfiguration of its own situation; but to say that is to say that the poem contains both the force of changing what is truly the case and all that resists what is truly the case. Where Donne aspires to mathematical precision, it attests to chaotic ambiguity; where Donne seeks Platonism, the materiality of the flesh is most keenly present; and where Donne would encompass the world, or universe, the isolation of the poet is most keenly felt. (Donne’s sexism is not just cruel and flippant, but it often occurs without any such force of resistance, as Pope’s for instance sometimes does not; it does not acknowledge its subordination to truth and goodness).
“The Sun Rising” comes to seem emblematic for Donne’s enterprise, since the “Sun” is all at once the truth of the New Science, the truth of the Platonic vision, the truth of the Christ the Son, rising, and the truth of time, undeniable whatever the cosmology, religion, or science; and against all of that, Donne sets not himself, but the occasion of his love, both timeless as an ideal and as fleeting and fickle as the desire expended in bed. Were he to exert his own power against the sun, it would be to wink his eye, but to do so would be to lose sight of the beloved, to extinguish therefore the claim he has against the sun; he cannot but admit himself to be dependent upon it, and his initial chastisement, pettily irritable, gives way to grudging co-existence. Take the Sun as a measure of truth, of what is, of what can be known, and he cannot, in the final stanza, invite it in; he asks that it be reconciled to his love so that his love might be allowed to endure. The walls of the bedroom are to be the sphere of its orbit; the bed itself, where they lie, the center, and so he has both re-established the Ptolemaic universe, where the scene of fallen sin, their lust, is rightly at the center, but also made for a scene of endless day, and a day without time, the sun always casting down on a sort of sameness; the “rags of time” are very much what the poem is about, and Donne insults them because he fears them, knowing that they bring change; I wonder whether, in any of the manuscripts, “rags” was transcribed in error as “rage”? But “rags” returns also to the bedroom: where “rags” of time are, by the poem’s end, the “rags” of the bedsheets. The final reconciliation with the Sun is only uneasily a victory over it; he cajoles when he promises the Sun some rest, with the lurking irony that he will be denying himself easy rest, and more, denying himself the darkness; he will live always exposed to the light of the sun in the final conceit he proffers. We might think, given that the poem began by bemoaning the sun’s light entering the casement, that he has fantasized himself into an even weaker position than he was in at the start, except that the first stanza makes clear what becomes clearer throughout: he wants to hoard time itself, and the reason he would hoard the world, to include in his love and the bed, the Indies and all states and princes, is that their diffusion somehow makes for time’s passing as rapidly as it does. If he can claim, he seems to think, that space has been conquered, then he will be able to conquer time. He would brave the light perpetually if only he were able to arrest time.
The most telling line brings the moment of greatest weakness: “I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink | But that I would not lose her sight so long.” Donne’s relentless arguing does not, as some seem to think, leave itself stupidly open to objections, but instead is enlivened by feeling at those moments that it might seem most stupid or careless. Here, Donne is making the point that he could close his eyes, in sleep or else momentary fashion, and in so doing, make the Sun irrelevant to his being—only to recognize that in so doing, he would be to isolate himself in a darkness of his own making. He is also suggesting that her eyes are themselves a source of light to compete against the sun. The latter idea cannot be maintained though, and he dispenses with it in the next few lines; the former is an admission that he relies on the Sun, lives in horrible dependency on its being the source of his love as well as life. The vulnerability in the lines arises because Donne does not seem to be in possession of his own dilemma: he proclaims his power against the sun as being a power to shut it out; but it is time and not light that is the force of his objection. Were he to close his eyes, he could still touch his beloved, as he has been doing all night, in the dark, and the fallibility of his argument is felt as a flailing at the confusion that he feels upon waking: “here is another day, if only I could shut out the light; the light pulls me from my bed.” The poem, though, follows Donne’s gradual dawning to why dawn is a source of despair.
Donne would have expected the poem to be read against his others, circulated in manuscript; wherever in European poetry (Italy) his debts lay, he would have known his poetic identity to be represented. And so we might ask what Donne ought to be fretting about at the poem’s end: not that the Sun cannot remain fixed within the confines of their room, recognizing their loves as encompassing all of creation and political life, but that time is a problem because of the inconstancy that is the axis of anxiety in most of his other poems. Sunlight bequeaths time and time bequeaths uncertainty; the world can never be “contracted” as Donne would have it except in the empty “contractual” language of a poem, and as a consequence, the goodness of love’s “contract” cannot hold, weakened by light, by the sun, by a truth that cannot be subordinated to human trouth or trust.