Metaphysical Conceit In ?The Sun Rising? Essay, Research Paper
James C. Harrison
Dr. J. Jones
Metaphysical Conceit in John Donne’s
“The Sun Rising”
Have you ever been in love? Have you ever felt a love so strong that nothing else seemed to matter? I hope that you have, but if you haven’t, John Donne’s poem, “The Sun Rising”, gives a revealing glimpse into the emotional roller coaster that is true love. In the poem, Donne uses what is called a “metaphysical conceit” to emphasize the strength of the devotion between him and his lover. A metaphysical conceit is a metaphor extended to extreme, almost absurd lengths, so it makes sense for it to be used to describe intense feelings such as the devotion of two lovers. This definitely applies here, for in the mind of the narrator, he and his lover are the entire world, and the mighty sun, a mere servant to their desires.
Donne’s narrator begins the metaphor in the first stanza, addressing the sun as its morning rays awaken him, through the curtain. He scolds it as if it were an unruly butler, calling the sun a “busy old fool” (Line1). It is suggested that the sun should be attending to more important concerns at that hour, rather than waking to lovers:
“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;”(Lines 5-8).
In other words, time means much more to those who must deal with everyday problems, like going to work, school, or out for a hunt. Time has no meaning to two people in love. They have no use for the sun. This may sound a little melodramatic, but that is one aspect of the metaphysical conceit: There is no question as to the writer’s position on the subject. This is just the beginning.
In the second stanza, the narrator’s anger, at first turns threatening. He warns that the sun could be darkened “with a wink” (Line 13), but he chooses not to do so, because he would not want to go so long without seeing his lover. Upon looking at her, full of pride and bravado, he says to the sun,
“If her eyes have not blinded thine.
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou lef’st them, or lie here with me.”
At the time this poem was written, colonialism and world trade were just getting into full swing, so it would have been quite a complement to be compared to the East or West Indies. Both were highly regarded and valued for their spices and gold, respectively. He keeps piling on the praise, though, extending his “we are the world” metaphor by comparing themselves to all the kings in the world. He tells the sun “all here in one bed lay” (line 20). As the poem progresses, his comparisons become more grandiose as he heaps more and more complements on the two of them.
It is in the third stanza that Donne truly states the theme of the metaphor. It is also where he stretches the metaphor to its farthest lengths. He begins by stating his most blunt argument:
“She is all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.” (Lines 21-22)
Although slightly chauvinistic by today’s standards, his words are strong and to the point, telling us plainly that she is the inhabited world and he, it’s ruler. You might think that this relates the idea pretty well, but Donne doesn’t end there. Of the relationship, he says,
“Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.”
This statement builds on the conceit by implying that theirs is the greatest union ever known, and that all other wealth, happiness, and devotion is only a shallow imitation of what they have between the two of them. The more he thinks of his lover, the warmer his feelings become, and he soon looses his angry, confrontational tone. His mood becomes more gracious, even merciful, as he begins to realize how he benefits from the sun that he was angrily scolding earlier.
“Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.”
Here, Donne continues the metaphor by offering his servant some slack in his old age. Since they are the entire world, if they are warm, then its duty is done. Then, one more time, just in case we haven’t figured it out yet, the conceit is summed up once again:
“Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is; these walls, they sphere.”
Once more, obviously, we are told that these two constitute all that there is in the universe. The sun exists only to serve them. Nothing else matters.
If there is a point that you are dying to get across, if there is a message which you think just can’t be overstated enough, then you might want to consider using a metaphysical conceit. A proper grasp of language is required to use the conceit without sounding repetitious. Obviously this is very important. We have all read or heard someone speak who doesn’t seem to realize that their point has been made. Donne knew this and welded his pen very carefully. His metaphysical conceit does not sound like someone rambling. It sounds like the heartfelt devotions of someone who believes what their heart is telling them.