What are some of the satirical aspects of John Donne's poem "The Sun Rising"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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John Donne’s poem “The Sun Rising” is satirical in a number of different respects. The poem opens, for instance, with explicitly satirical words, as the speaker calls the sun itself a “Busy old fool” (1). Immediately, then, a satirical tone is established, and this tone continues for much of the rest of the work, as when the speaker next condemns the sun by calling it a “saucy pedantic wretch” (5).

The speaker’s mockery then moves from the sun to various kinds of human beings, such as “Late schoolboys,” “sour prentices [that is, apprentices],” “court huntsmen,” and “country ants [that is, rural workers]” (6-8). First the sun is mocked, and then a wide social spectrum is satirized.

The speaker next satirizes “hours, days, [and] months,” which he lambastes as being the mere “rags of time” (10), but then he soon returns to satirizing the sun (11-18). He subsequently mocks “Princes” (23), honor (24), and “wealth” (24) before returning once more to satire of the sun (25-30).This poem, in other words, is a tour de force of satire, presenting an extremely self-confident speaker.

Is it possible, however, that Donne himself is mocking the very speaker he presents? Is it possible that the speaker is a bit too cocky, a bit too self-centered, a bit too complacent and self-involved? Are we meant to sympathize with this speaker, even in his mockery of honor (24), of all things? Is the speaker’s mockery merely good-natured teasing, which we are meant to laugh at and enjoy? Or is Donne, perhaps, offering some sly satire of the speaker himself? Is the mocker mocked?

For an excellent edition of this poem and others, see Theodore Redpath, ed., The Songs and Sonets of John Donne [sic], 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).


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