Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
We promised ourselves we would hold off as long as we could, but it’s time for a lesson in medieval cosmology. Though there was a lively debate among intellectuals of the time, the prevailing belief was the old Ptolemaic model of the earth at the center of the universe. Then everything else in the sky rotated around the earth in its own sphere. The bigger the sphere, the higher and more important it is in the chain of being, and has control over the smaller spheres. It was also all mixed up with religious beliefs, so that stars and planets were seen as holy, or at least closer to God, the “prime mover” who set everything into motion. That’s a lot of explanation for the use of the word “reverend” in line 11 to describe sunbeams, but it will keep coming up, so we thought we might as well.
Donne shows his knowledge of recent scientific discovery in talking of the sun’s beams. It was a recent idea that humans saw objects because of the light cast on them. You can see in other poems by Donne references to “eye beams,” the metaphorical light our eyes cast on objects.
Seeing “beams” followed by “strong” gives a metaphorical sense of wooden beams, making the reference feel less frilly and more solid.
But then Donne reverses our expectations to mock the sun again. It looked like he was saying something nice there in line 11, but line 12 reveals the verb and the rest of the question: “Why would anyone think that?” Once again, Donne withheld the verb and changed the normal syntax to create an effect on the reader.
That question is like a hypothetical proposition that needs a proof. And like any good attorney, Donne is ready to prove his case. Why do I dare to insult the sun? Well, says line 13, because if I just close my eyes then all those sunbeams disappear.
His argument is really clever. He went out of his way to talk about how solid the sun’s beams are and now in one phrase we see that they are actually totally insubstantial.
He also keeps up the sun metaphor in his bragging. He makes himself greater than the sun because his eyes can “eclipse” and “cloud” the sun’s beams.
Line 13 also features some really lovely sound effects. Notice the alliteration with hard “c” sounds at the beginning of the line and softer “w” sounds at the end.
The fourteenth line reminds us that this is a love poem. It’s like when a guy is trying to defend a girl’s honor by standing up to some tough guy. At some point, they always forget about the girl and just start bragging and comparing their biceps.
But here in line 14, Donne leaves off his attack of the sun to say something sweetâ€”and maybe a little cheesy. He says that he could eclipse the sun with a wink, but if he did, he would have to take his eyes off his beloved and he just doesn’t know if he could stand it. (You might be able to see our eyes rolling just a little bit.)
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late tell me,
Whether both the Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Donne maybe stretches it a little in making a clever paradox in line 15. He tells the sun that if the beauty of his lover’s eyes has not blinded the sun’s eyes, then the sun should take a look around.
First, we aren’t so sure about the sun having eyesâ€”kind of a weird metaphor. Second, do you really want someone to take one look and your girlfriend and be stricken blind? Yikes.
Let’s give the guy some credit, though. He’s saying that just as the sun is so bright and radiant that one look can blind you, even the sun can be blinded by the brightness and beauty of his lover’s eyes.
Then things get even weirder. He is still commanding the sun: “Look, and tomorrow late tell me,” but he now claims that if the sun were to go look around the world, it would find that everything now resided inside this one bedroom. This is the part when we shake our heads like Scooby-Doo. The whole world has just collapsed into a single room?
The Indias mentioned in line 17 are the East and West Indies. The East Indies was a broad term for the entire Indian subcontinent and was a land prized in the eyes of traders and poets for its valuable and exotic spices. The West Indies were the newly discovered Caribbean Islands that were thought to be rich mining opportunities.
It is almost as if Donne is playing a trick on the sun, flaunting his power over it. Remember, the sun has the divine right to rule over the earth, to take care of it. Donne asserts the sun’s control in line 18, saying that the sun is in charge of leaving countries just as it finds them, but then he teases the sun: “you won’t find them there! I have taken them and now they are here with me.”
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.
Line 19 is parallel to line 16â€”the narrator commands the sun to check up on its kingdom. In line 16, he told the sun to tell him tomorrow what he saw; in line 19 he tells the sun to remember the kings he saw only yesterday. Basically, “Now you see them, now you don’t.”
Donne has also switched senses. In the previous parallel example, Donne commands the sun to look with its eyes. Here his command is for the sun to ask around and “hear” what’s going on. Poets like to shake up their sensory images.
Here’s the weird part of the metaphor: he reiterates the same claim he made before about the Indias, that all the kings of the world can now be found in his bed. That’s a pretty bizarre and not so pleasant image.
So Donne ends the stanza having made one strange claimâ€”that he is even stronger than the sunâ€”and backed it up with a logical argument. But he makes an even stranger claim to close the stanza the whole world is now located in my bed. In the last stanza, Donne tells us how this is possible.
- “The Sun Rising” by John Donne… Overall Summary Notes for Waec/neco Literature Exams(114) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Daffodils…summary,analysis and Sample Waec/neco Question and Answer (100) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Detailed Revision Notes (stanza 1) of “The Sun Rising” by John Donne for Waec/neco Literature Exams(115) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)