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Rhetoric's Inherent Contradictions:
John Donne's "The Sun Rising"

by Eric Otto

Critics of John Donne's "The Sun Rising" often note that the poem's displacement of the outside world in favor of two lovers' inner world serves to support its overall theme: the centrality of human love amidst a permanent physical universe. In an essay entitled "John Donne," Achsah Guibbory supports this reading of the poem, stating, "The world of love contains everything of value; it is the only one worth exploring and possessing. Hence the microcosmic world of love becomes larger and more important than the macrocosm" (135). "[T]he lovers' room," Toshihiko Kawasaki observes similarly, "is a microcosm because it is private and self-contained, categorically excluding the outer world" (29). As evident in this criticism, Donne's lovers seem to transcend the limits of the physical world by disregarding external influences, coercing all things to rotate around them instead. In Thomas Docherty's words, "[the lovers] become the world and occupy the same position of centrality as the sun. They become, in short, the still point around which all else is supposed to revolve, and around whom all time passes [. . .]" (31). They create a miniature world that is more important than the larger universe within the realm of their bedroom, and their bodies are the gravitational center.

Expanding upon the criticism of this poem in his analysis of Donne's poetry, James S. Baumlin concludes that "The Sun Rising" must not be interpreted literally. Rather, Donne's displacement of the outside world, in favor of the lovers' inside "microcosm," is a rhetorical technique used to argue for the strength and energy of mutual love. "Actually," Baumlin writes,

[. . .] the reader knows that the world does not literally go away, that the sun's orbit does not contract to the bedroom of the lovers; but as one reads, one observes how the beliefs, emotions, and values of the lovers themselves undergo a sea change. Hyperbole may lack the power to change the external physical world; still it changes the private world of the lovers, a world of emotion and experience that proves stubbornly resistant to logic, though marvelously—miraculously—open to language. (241)
Indeed, this analysis is valid if readers assume with Baumlin that while the poem's logic operates inadequately, its rhetoric works "miraculously." But, is the persona's reliance on language to transcend the physical world able to succeed? Or, does the language of "The Sun Rising," like the logic, fail to communicate the theme that many scholars have recognized?

The rhetoric of Donne's persona does seem, upon a first reading, to locate the lovers at the center of the universe successfully while it subordinates all surrounding objects. And the poet's use of hyperbole is convincing enough if readers immediately assume that Donne intended to oppose logic and to define the universe's purpose through the transcendent qualities of language. Yet the inconsistencies in rhetoric that the poem manifests, what one scholar has deemed "a tangle of contradictions and reversals," make this commonly accepted interpretation unstable (Brown 110). While Donne's speaker may dislocate the outside world only for the extent of "The Sun Rising," he is still unsuccessful at convincing critical readers that internal love can symbolically replace the physical world if logic is subordinated to language. The persona establishes several binary oppositions and seems to favor a certain hierarchy within the rhetorical structures he creates. As the poem progresses, however, he begins to misspeak, seemingly forgetting the earlier language of his discourse. Ultimately, the persona's reorganization of language, his attempt to push rhetoric beyond the limits of logic, fails; for, upon condensing the world around his lover and himself, he calls back those objects that he initially excluded. The poem dismantles itself through the inherent contradictions of the persona's rhetoric, leaving the reader unconvinced that language permits love to transcend the outside world.

In the first stanza of "The Sun Rising," Donne's persona creates several binary oppositions that indicate the poem's ultimate but unsuccessful argument: love exists independently from and superior to the physical world. The persona, questioning the sun, asks contentiously,

     Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
     Why dost thou thus
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run? (1-4)
The substantial oppositions present in these lines are confinement versus openness and eternity versus momentariness. As for the former, the persona objects to the sun's intrusion "Through windows" and "through curtains." Windows and curtains separate him and his lover from the outside world, from the knowledge that their love exists within a mundane, physical realm. And if the "Busy [and] unruly" sun permeates these modes of exclusion it will undermine his desired confinement, devitalizing his love as it intrudes upon his room. 

His reasoning leads into the other significant opposition of the poem's introduction: eternity / momentariness. The "lovers' seasons" are placed against the sun's seasons, and the persona's disputatious tone suggests his efforts to subordinate everyday, natural motions to ceaseless love. He continues, "Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, / Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time" (9-10). All in all, the introductory stanza of "The Sun Rising" reveals the persona's motive to engage in mutual love within a confined realm that is free from the time constraints of the physical universe. 

While in the first stanza the persona declares the physical world's inferiority to love, he also suggests the social sphere's necessary absence from his microcosm. He rhetorically pushes the sun away, telling it to "go chide / Late schoolboys, and sour prentices, / Go tell court-huntsmen, that the king will ride" (5-7). Indeed, the sun is commanded to seek these individuals because its search will render the persona free from its "motions." Yet he also demands the sun to pursue these people because he knows its "chid[ing]" and "tell[ing]" will keep them away from his room. The first stanza, then, presents a figurative opposition to everything in the outside world—from the sun and the "ants" to children and the king—in order to convince the audience that the language of love is capable of consummating this act (8).

However, the persuasive language of the first stanza begins to break down early in the second stanza, as the persona seems to forget the love ideals that he is seeking. In particular, his celebration of love's eternity versus his condemnation of the outside world's momentariness loses its potency, for he is overtly unable to escape time constraints—even through the use of language. Remarking on the simplicity of escaping the sun's intrusive beams, the persona states, "I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink, / But that I would not lose her sight so long" (13-14). By closing his eyes, he excludes the external world from his internal world of love. This aspect of his rhetoric is still convincing, for readers can understand that the eye acts like the window of the first stanza, separating an internal sphere from an outside sphere; and, the "wink"—the curtain—prevents the sun from intruding. However, readers cannot be convinced that the persona continues to favor (or, can continue to favor) the ideal of love's eternity. The assertion "so long" at the end of line fourteen demonstrates that he is unable to create a language that is independent from the physical world. As he defined it earlier, his internal world of love knows no "hours, days, months, which are the rags of time," but in expressing his fear that closing his eyes would cause him to lose sight of his love for a certain amount of time—for "so long"—he tacitly admits that his microcosm must obey external rules. His inside sphere and the outside world have a "tomorrow late" and a "yesterday," and through admitting this the persona evinces the inability of rhetoric to transcend the physical, momentary world and to exist apart from external influence (16).

The last two lines of the second stanza and the first two lines of the third stanza continue to manifest the persona's language dismantling itself. Besides the eternity / momentariness opposition that breaks down because of the persona's inability to dismiss time constraints from his world of love, lines nineteen and twenty also demonstrate his failure to exclude the social world from his microcosm, an important opposition that he develops in the first stanza. After telling the sun a second time to depart and engage with the social sphere, he comments, "Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday, / And thou shalt hear, all here in one bed lay" (19-20). Whereas earlier the persona commands the sun to leave because he wishes to live with his lover uninfluenced by time (which, as discussed, is an unsuccessful endeavor) and to remain uninterrupted by the outside, social world, here the poet claims that the social sphere is in his bed. 

Perhaps disclosing this weakness of his rhetoric more distinctly, the persona states of his lover and of himself, "She is all states, and all princes, I, / Nothing else is" (21-22). In "John Donne, Undone," Thomas Docherty, comments on the first line of this passage: "Sexual relation fades into commercial relation here, and the female herself becomes mediated as a symbol of the market-place itself, [. . .]" (32). Indeed, the persona follows the putative seventeenth-century social paradigm of female inferiority when he claims that his lover is territory while he is the prince of that territory. Again, he is unable to utilize a language that can transcend the external world; in this instance, a dominant social ideology pervades his rhetoric, and his world of love cannot escape the outside structure once again.

Before the third stanza begins, two of the binary oppositions that the persona establishes in the first stanza have broken down. While he attempts to engage in a convincing discourse on the potency of love, the persona's rhetorical attachments to eternity and to social exclusion work within governing structures that he is unable to avoid; therefore, his argument for these ideals is not firmly grounded. He endeavors to use language in order to assert love's superiority to the external world, but by acknowledging time limitations and the social sphere he ultimately supports the structures that he hopes to undermine. The last stanza of "The Sun Rising" consummates the destruction of his attempt. As previously mentioned, the persona establishes a confinement / openness opposition, favoring to be enclosed within a microcosmic world of love. However, this idea is dismantled when the persona summons everything in the external world to his room: 

      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 center is, these walls, thy sphere. (26-30)
Here, the most evident contradiction in the persona's reasoning is his contraction of the external world into his internal world. As noted earlier, he claims that love knows no time and exists independent from external influence. Through this assertion, the persona confines himself and his lover willingly, expelling the sun and rejecting the cultural sphere with the notion that his love surpasses these aspects of the physical world. Yet the buttress of his final argument, which he presents syllogistically, is the assumption that his microcosmic world of love is the whole world. In lines twenty-seven and twenty-eight the persona reasons that since the sun is obligated to illuminate the world, it must shine on him and his lover; thus, he thinks that his microcosm is everything. His bed, he asserts in the final line, is the center of the universe; his walls are its borders. 

The persona's argument ends with the assumption that the entire physical world occupies his microcosm. He and his lover are the center of this new sphere, and their love transcends the physical limitations of the outside world. But upon critical analysis, this rhetoric is unconvincing. He brings openness into his closed world, implicitly subverting his ideal to remain isolated from outside influence. Throughout the progression of "The Sun Rising," Donne's persona has made claims that undoubtedly break down as he continues to speak. In the final instance, the confinement that he favors in his internal world of love, as opposed to the openness of the macrocosm, is undermined because he insists that the external world exists within his microcosm. Ultimately, the persona's attempt to utilize a language that will communicate love's transcendent qualities is a failure—not a "sudden creative power" as Lisa Gorton asserts with other critics—because the structures that he hopes to escape are inherently incorporated in that language (par. 17). He tries to embrace the ideals of eternity, social solitariness, and confinement; however, in this verbal enterprise, he incorporates the ideas that he is reacting against into his rhetoric. As a result, his argument loses force—his language is unsuccessful. 

Works Cited

Baumlin, James S. John Donne and the Rhetorics of Renaissance Discourse. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1991.

Brown, Meg Lota. Donne and the Politics of Conscience in Early Modern England. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Docherty, Thomas. John Donne, Undone. London: Methuen, 1986.

Donne, John. "The Sun Rising." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch, et al. Vol. 1. New York: Longman, 1999. 1552-1553. 

Gorton, Lisa. "John Donne's Use of Space." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (1998): 27 pars. 10 November 1999 <>. 

Guibbory, Achsah. "John Donne." The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry: Donne to Marvell. Ed. Thomas N. Corns. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 123-147.

Kawasaki, Toshihiko. "Donne's Microcosm."Seventeenth-Century Imagery: Essays on Uses of Figurative Language from Donne to Farquhar. Ed. Earl Miner. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971. 25-43.

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