“The Sun Rising” A Metaphysical Analysis of the Soul: The Fruits of Loving and Being Loved by Saachi Sethii 

“The Sun Rising” A Metaphysical Analysis of the Soul: The Fruits of Loving and Being Loved 

The poetry of John Donne is centered upon the thematic motif of love, in every sense of the word. From spiritual tenderness, to heavenly adoration, and occasionally, even scandalized lust, Donne delves into the throes of intimacy with stunning ease and consistency across his self-constructed canon. One motif he explicitly emphasizes in his work is the idea of the  immortal soul and the existence of predestined soulmates. This can be best exemplified through an examination of his metaphysical aubade. Entitled “The Sun Rising,” this piece explores the role of the soul and the soulmate within romantic relationships, as well as the ways in which that love is situated in the body. Through a strong personified speaker, a strategic tone, purposeful language, and the motif of physicality, this poem illustrates a clear argument in favor of an immortal soul, seeks to subvert the relationship between the human spirit and the celestial world, and ultimately, interrogates the root desires of human nature. 

“The Sun Rising” is an aubade which appears to be filled with playfulness, satire, and flirtation on the initial read. With that being said, through extensive analysis of the language and tone, an earnest voice appears beneath the speaker’s tongue-in-cheek remarks. The piece begins with the speaker’s invocation of the sun, where he declares, “Busy old fool, unruly sun” (Donne line 1). This unabashed call on the sun already reveals an insight to the speaker’s character—that is, the authority he feels he has over the heavenly bodies—and moves us to question why that is. As his declaration continues, this notion is quickly answered as the speaker relents, “Why dost thou thus, / Through windows, and through curtains call on us? / Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?” (2–4). In these questions, the speaker both reveals to us the character of “the lover,” and also establishes the relationship they have with “the sun”—or in other words, with the heavens. This correspondence between the lovers and “the sun” is an essential point of contention within the poem, because as we come to understand, Donne seeks to subvert the power dynamics within the relationship, and  ultimately is going to lead us to interrogate our own understanding of love. The speaker then goes on to further insult the sun, calling it a “Saucy pedantic wretch” (5) and daring it to bother others, rather than continue to disturb the lovers (i.e. late schoolboys, court huntsmen, and country ants). Ultimately, the speaker justifies his position, claiming that, “Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime, Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time” (9–10,) and asserting that love is exempt from the limitations set upon humanity by the seasons, the weather, and the trials of time. This first stanza sets the tone for the rest of the piece, and hints at the first indications of the idea of an immortal soul. By introducing the lovers as a unit, and cutting right to the heart of the tension in line one (with one of the lovers calling upon the sun), Donne has established the main players of the argument—the lovers pitted against “the sun.” Furthermore, we may also observe that with these last lines, Donne actually writes in a justification for the speaker’s argument, and uses romantic love to do so. Within the claim that love supersedes hours, days, and months, he establishes that these temporal features are all wear to wear out into “rags of time” (line 10), implicitly and simultaneously establishing that the romantic connection the lovers share will not—further pointing to the notion of immortality.

As a consequence of using this romantic love to justify the speaker’s authority over the sun in the first stanza, Donne instills power into both the idea of romantic love and the lovers themselves. While this “power-of-love” theme might appear a bit facetious, this claim is imperative to the argument which follows, and serves as the foundation for stanzas two and three. Stanza two begins with the speaker continuing on his tirade—admonishing the sun for disturbing the two lovers as they wake up, and get ready to separate for the day. After sufficiently doing so, he provides a tender reprieve, admitting, “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” (lines 13–15). In particular, these lines function to both further our understanding of the characters themselves and also provide a scope for the embodied power the lovers possess. To situate the piece, we should call to mind the sociopolitical air of 1633—a time when we were truly interrogating the world around us, and only a year after Galileo published his defense of a heliocentric model of the universe—a manuscript which would eventually cost him his life. Keeping this context in mind, we can read the second stanza as a way for Donne to incorporate and comment on elements of the real world into his work under the guise of private poetry. The speaker claims to have the power to “eclipse and cloud” the sun’s rays with a wink—and that fact is true of us all, if we were to close our eyes on a bright day. However, if we reference the definition of the word “eclipse” as it was used during this time, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the only instance when it was used as an active verb (attached to an “I”) was in reference to a celestial body. Thus, by avoiding the passive voice in this line and giving agency to the speaker, Donne poses him in direct comparison with the sun—not only as an opponent, but as an opponent of equal magnitude. This is an integral part of Donne’s argument, and in a way, legitimizes the love shared between the speaker and his subject. What’s more, he doubles down with this point again, in line fifteen, when he remarks “If her eyes have not blinded thine.” Donne not only establishes his speaker as an entity empowered by love, but further embodies love within the subject as well—by insinuating that she is capable of blinding even the sun. We can thus assert that the lovers are not only figuratively empowered by their love, but are also literally so. 

Still, this section of the argument remains incomplete. “Romantic love” as a justification for metaphysical empowerment is still logically lacking, because it does not hone in on the specifics of what distinguishes one romantic relationship from another. Nevertheless, Donne accounts for this discrepancy in the second half of stanza two, ultimately clarifying the power of the soulmate, specifically. Donne goes on to declare his devotion to his lover, comparing her to both the East and West Indies, as well as to a number of kings. He writes, “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” (17–20). Similar to the previous section, we can observe Donne’s strategic use of a tongue-in-cheek tone as a way to mask a more embodied, metaphysical commentary. With the East Indies harboring a wealth of spices and the West Indies a trove of gold, this section adds yet another layer of depth to Donne’s argument, as his claim is underscored by political commentary. In equating his lover to the land Donne invokes the imagery of colonial conquest, but also reinforces the idea that the soul is immortal by attaching it to a physical entity—through effectively grounding his lover to the Earth. I would even argue that these lines warrant a change in language: rather than Donne actively focusing on “the lovers” as characters in themselves, he has shifted the perspective to view the lovers as the physical embodiments of soulmate-love itself—which he then asserts is immortal, in the same capacity as that of the physical Earth. 

The third and final stanza of this piece solidifies the claim that the soul, as well as the love between soulmates is immortal by reiterating support of a heliocentric universe. In keeping with the tone of the piece, Donne begins by expressing his adoration for his lover, commenting, “She’s all states, and all princes, I, / Nothing else is. Princes do but play us; compared to this, / All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy” (21–24.) Upon a closer reading of these lines, we are also privy to a recapitulation of the “map” motif, wherein the subject is situated in reference to “states,” or “countries.” On a more intimate level, we can further inspect the gender-dichotomy established, as Donne positions the male speaker to be the “prince” who rules over the “state”—the lover. Thus, once again, we’re subject to Donne’s strong sense of self as it shines through in his narration, and in this case, the rather prideful tone the speaker uses to assert himself within his claims. There is also a clear reference to “alchemy,” which could potentially relate to his piece “Love’s Alchemy”—another poem questioning the ability of romantic love to last forever. Nevertheless, in the next lines, Donne directly compares the lovers to the physical world, and the speaker returns to his task of chiding the sun. He writes, “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” (25–28.) After asserting the sun’s unhappiness in comparison to their own, the speaker goes on to clue us into yet another temporal claim. In indicating that, “Thine age asks ease,” Donne implicitly claims that the sun has the ability to grow old, and therefore, instills the sun with a kind of mortality—a repetition of the idea brought forth by the “rags of time” line in stanza one. It is here where we see Donne achieve his goal of subverting the relationship between the lovers and the sun, which we can understand to be a relationship between humanity and nature. Where typically, heaven and nature are considered “immortal” or “everlasting,” Donne suggests that, like with the thought of a heliocentric universe, perhaps it is instead the lovers, and soulmate-love, which is the center of our desires—and by extension, our human nature. 

In a culmination of the piece, Donne concludes, admitting, “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere” (29–30.) With the final lines of the aubade, Donne returns us to the crack of morning, and the imagery of the lovers waking up in bed. What I find particularly striking about these final lines is the dissonance which exists between them in relation to the rest of the argument. Throughout the poem, Donne provides a plethora of information, and consistently uses tongue-in-cheek humor to disguise his commentary on the immortal soul and soulmate love. However, I argue that these lines call into question the entire argument, because by reminding us of the bed (and even going as far as to include the word itself), Donne reminds us that the lovers have likely consummated that love, and therefore leaves the argument open to interpretation. Is this piece truly about an immortal soulmate love, or an immortal consummation? Is the physical act of sex the embodiment of that immortal soul? While these are questions that might seem unsettling, when asked after a close analysis of the poem thus far, we could make the argument that they are perhaps the questions Donne intended to leave us with. After twenty-eight lines of rigid strategy and precision, to leave a logical gap at the end of a seemingly sweet poem is certainly out-of-character, and I argue that it is much more likely these questions are the true intentions of Donne’s ending. We’re meant to grapple not only with the metaphysical problem of the soul, but also with the physical reality, and the demands (or temptations) that come with soulmate-love, and ultimately, with being loved at all. 

All in all, “The Sun Rising” is a piece which truly demands careful attention from its readers, but which entertains immensely through its lighthearted facade. The childish, wry humor that the speaker exhibits throughout the poem truly makes it a delight to read, and serves as a clever masquerade against the insightful philosophical underpinnings we’re able to extrapolate, and the very serious ideas/questions about love we might be left with. In the final analysis, through the witty remarks, faux conceit, and an earnest appreciation of romantic relationship in its many bodied forms, Donne’s work is a testament to the capacity of the immortal soul, to the immense power gleaned from the soulmate connection, and to the many venerable fruits of loving, and being loved.

Selected Bibliography 

“Eclipse, V., Sense 2.a.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, December 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/1054217874. 

Donne, John. “The Sun Rising by John Donne.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44129/the-sun-rising. Accessed Feb. 2024.

Authors Bio

Saachi Sethii is an avid writer and a sophomore at Barnard College. Majoring in English and Philosophy, Saachi is so excited to see her work recognized alongside her fellow bibliophiles, and looks forward to her academic journey ahead.