Saturday 20 April 2024

The Sun Rising

My memory is pretty good – unusually good, in fact, by most standards, although not freakish or photographic – although I realise that this is not necessarily a Good Thing: forgetting can be a form of healing, after all. Like anyone else, though, I do forget plenty of things, too, although there are clearly degrees and levels of forgetting, ranging from "Nope, sorry, don't remember that at all" to "Wow, yes, how could I ever have forgotten!". For example, I had sort-of forgotten about my close encounter with John Donne, whose "metaphysical" poetry I had been introduced to and studied during the intensive extra term of cramming at school that led up to the Oxford entrance examinations in late 1972. But a recent mention of his poem "The Sun Rising" in the comments on another blog brought it all flooding back with an intensity that took me by surprise. Wow, yes...

That poem, published in 1633, plays with the conventions of a genre known as the aubade, poems in which, typically, the arrival of dawn means it is time for a couple in bed to part, presumably because they can't risk being found together, and not because one of them has an early train to catch. To a romantically-inclined eighteen-year-old boy like me, yet to share a bed with anyone, it was an intoxicating preview of what, with any luck, lay ahead in my not too distant future.

It occurs to me now that I had been primed to appreciate this poem in particular by the song "Wond'ring Aloud" on Jethro Tull's 1971 release Aqualung, an album on which I knew every note, word, and inflection of every track with the intimacy that you only ever really acquire with the favourite recordings of your adolescence, played time after time in your bedroom. I knew little about poetry then, but it felt as if I already knew everything about rock and pop. Even now, hearing that song for the first time in decades (and in particular the line "Wond'ring aloud, will the years treat us well?") gives me an emotional jolt that hot-wires seventy-year-old me directly to seventeen-year-old me, and awakens all sorts of long-dormant memories, feelings, and faces.

So here is Donne's poem, in the original spelling as I first encountered it in Herbert Grierson's classic anthology Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century
                    The Sunne Rising

         Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers seasons run?
         Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide
         Late schoole boyes, and sowre prentices,
     Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
     Call countrey ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.
         Thy beames, so reverend, and strong
         Why shouldst thou thinke?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
         If her eyes have not blinded thine,
         Looke, and to morrow late, tell mee,
     Whether both the Indias of spice and Myne
     Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.
Aske for those Kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.
         She is all States, and all Princes, I,
         Nothing else is.
Princes doe but play us; compar'd to this,
All honor's mimique; All wealth alchimie,
         Thou sunne art halfe as happy as wee,
         In that the world's contracted thus;
     Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
     To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.
"The rags of time"... "Nothing else is..." Wonderful. But I also remember waking early one summer morning, actually but awkwardly sharing a very narrow single bed, and declaiming some Donne – quite likely this very poem – only to be told in no uncertain terms about the appalling one-sided sexism of male so-called "love" poetry. Huh? This was something neither Donne, Tull's Ian Anderson, or even Joni Mitchell had prepared me for. I don't think the expression "male gaze" was current then, but this was definitely a case of "Welcome to the other half of the world; I'm no state, and you're not my prince, poetry boy!" Hmm, point taken; think I'll go and make some tea...

As it happens, that woman was the woman I can hear talking on the phone upstairs just now. I'm pretty sure she won't remember that morning forty (fifty!) years ago, but I do, and I acknowledge it as one of those important moments when your complacent view of the world is turned upside down and given a good shake. I had a lot of complacent views in those days, some of which were rather worse than merely complacent and which I remember only too well. Although, mercifully, however much our own cringeworthy moments may haunt and torment the memory, it seems we rarely recall those of others. "Nope, sorry, don't remember that at all..."

So I'm pleased to report that the years have treated us reasonably well, and if nothing else I have learned that some people are not in the mood for poetry first thing in the morning when that busy old fool, the unruly sun comes streaming in through windows and through curtains to call on us, yet again. There are no metaphysical kings congregated in this bed. And I'm still making the tea every morning...


Doug Plummer said...

This is so sweet!

Mike C. said...

Hi Doug, good to know you're still out there -- most of the Old Guard of readers and commenters seem to have gone ominously quiet in recent times...

As for sweet, we cater for all tastes, budgets, and persuasions here on IH!


David Brookes said...

Hi Mike

I'm still here. I used to be a busy old fool, but I don't seem to be so busy now. On the Shakespeare theme, we recently bought and watched the Globe production of Twelfth Night (with Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry). Although I know the play pretty well and have several other versions on DVD this was a revelation - pure magic.

David Brookes

Mike C. said...


I can imagine Stephen Fry would be an excellent Malvolio! Reminds me I have a Globe Player sub, but have never used it -- I have to confess I find their recent turn to gender-blind and "queer" casting offputting...


Stephen said...

"the years have treated us reasonably well" — I hope the years to come are as kind to you both, Mike.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Stephen, for that kind thought. Old age, sadly, can be a bit of a lottery, but I hope for the best!