In the same way that Vermeer’s paintings of a woman standing at a window—grasping a pitcher, reading a letter, trying on a pearl necklace—are variations on the theme of how it feels to inhabit a space of interior crafted culture infused by exterior natural light, John Donne’s two extraordinary aubades, “The Sun Rising” and “The Good Morrow,” are variations on the theme of what permeates (and does not permeate) the domestic interior from without. Vermeer’s interior is the private space of the solitary woman, busy in the activities of the day, but Donne’s is the private space of the couple, together in their bedroom as the morning reaches them. Still, the couple in that private room have something of the serene, grounded physicality that Vermeer’s women have gathered around them in the rooms they inhabit.
Donne’s physicality, however, appears to depend on his speaker’s creating a strict demarcation between the couple’s sphere and external influence. The lovers’ united physical and emotional being in “The Good Morrow”—“My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears / And true plain hearts do in the faces rest” (15-16)—depends on their world being held apart from the experience of any exterior space, whether encountered or represented: “Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, / Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown” (12-13).1 Similarly, “The Sun Rising” begins with the speaker’s rebuke of the sun for its temerity in breaking into the lovers’ inner sanctum of both room and (curtained) bed: “Busy old foole, unruly sun, / Why dost thou thus, / Through windows, and through curtains call on us?”2 In the place of the globe the sun traverses—from East Indies to West, the “Indias of spice and mine”—the speaker proposes a centered, embodied world apart: “All here in one bed lay. / She’is all states, and all princes, I, / Nothing else is” (20-22).
There is one important distinction between these two poems’ one-room (or even one-bed) worldscapes, however, and it is a distinction of affect. The speaker in “The Good Morrow” knows only two emotions. In the past, desire (“If ever any beauty I did see, / Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee” [5-6]). And in the present, love. Appearing twice as a verb attached to “thou and I” and three times as a noun, “love” anchors the poem’s exclusion of all “new worlds” in favor of the lovers’ solitude: “For love … / makes one little room, an everywhere” (12, 10-11). The result, for “The Good Morrow,” is a physical stasis and lack of differentiation that amounts to emotional homogeneity: “Where can we finde two better hemispheres / Without sharp north, without declining west?” (17-18). Love may even extend physical and emotional stasis into eternity: “Whatever dies, was not mixed equally; / If our two loves be one, or, thou and I / Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die” (19-21).3 This portrait of eternal, unchanging, hermetically sealed love is part of the appeal of “The Good Morrow,” but it also potentially prompts both claustrophobia and an inquiry into how authentic the speaker is being when he asserts the lovers are equal. Not only does the speaker define their shared love for the two of them, he also declares that “love, all love of other sights controls” (10), effectively narrowing the beloved’s vision to a view of the domestic interior in the same way that the poem narrows both partners’ future to an eternity of immutable blendedness. What the beloved’s will for that future is, we never learn. Nor is a space created where the beloved’s will might conceivably emerge.
While the speaker of “The Sun Rising” is initially eager to declare the couple’s love similarly eternal—“Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, / Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time” (9-10)—this poem’s affect transmutes into something quite different from that of “The Good Morrow,” and something much more dynamic: happiness. Significantly, the lovers in “The Sun Rising” are identified as happy only in relation to an external agent, the sun that shines from outside through their windows and their bed-curtains: “Thou sun are half as happy as we.” The sun, suffusing as it does the entire world, is less happy “In that the world’s contracted” in its pursuit of sham honor and illusory wealth—“contracted” meaning both “narrowed” and legally bound. Thus these lovers’ happiness, unlike the static affect of “The Good Morrow,” emerges as an emotion only in contrast to an external society that is poorer than, but not negated by, the lovers’ bliss: “compared to this, / All honour’s mimic; all wealth alchemy” (23-26). This comparative relation, I will shortly be arguing, is what allows the speaker’s partner in “The Sun Rising”—and the speaker too, for that matter—the option of a state and a future alternative to the ones the speaker currently describes.
The word happy is quite novel in a poem written somewhere close to the turn of the seventeenth century, and the nature of its newness is key to understanding both “The Sun Rising” and this poem’s difference from “The Good Morrow.” Before the later sixteenth century, the word “happy” in English meant merely “fortunate.” As suggested by its root, “hap,” being happy implied sheer good luck. Arguably, then, no one was happy at all in the Middle Ages, not in the modern sense of the word. A medieval person could experience joy, to be sure. But joy on earth was considered a lower-order emotion: pleasant, yes, but not to be esteemed too highly. In this opinion, medieval thinkers were schooled by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for whom earthly joy was primarily a matter of appetite, not something that involved cognition or reflection. Aristotle, for his part, does think earthly happiness is possible, but also believes it to be rare. He identifies great happiness with the activity of contemplating virtue, the highest good that humans can experience; but he was also fairly sure that the everyday activity of trying to be virtuous was merely a matter of restraining one’s passions from tilting toward one extreme or the other. Thus those who cannot manage the greatest happiness of a life consisting solely of the pure exercise of reason—and there are few who can— are relegated to the “secondary happiness” of regulating their appetites.4
Thomas Aquinas, in turn, Christianizes Aristotle by converting the highest good from the contemplation of virtue, which is at least possible (even if unlikely) on this earth, into the direct contemplation of God, which is not. That is, happiness for Aquinas, as for Augustine before him, pertains only in the beatitudo perfecta of a Christian heaven. Aquinas considered earthly joy, in contrast, to be one of the passions, a state of moving or being moved that applies only to the “sensitive” or corporeal appetite and not to the “intellectual” appetite, also known as the will.5 Specifically, joy is one of the “concupiscent” passions, which comprise the pleasure or pain felt upon experiencing good or evil. Some of the concupiscent passions are both active and passive, but joy is purely passive: it is the pleasure one experiences in repose upon attaining the object of one’s desire.6 Aquinas also makes it perfectly clear that earthly joy has nothing to do with thinking and reasoning, not even the activity of contemplative reasoning that Aristotle so valued. The only joy that could be intellective was the joy felt by disembodied souls in heaven.7 By extension, heavenly joy was the only kind of happiness that could be planned for, and toward which humans could take active, positive steps (through faith and penance). On earth, joy merely reacts. Thus, if nothing external changes, one’s state of earthly joy does not change, either.
Aristotle’s characterization of ordinary happiness as never experiencing drastic emotion, combined with Aquinas’s characterization of earthly joy as passive and unthinking, helps us to understand better the static emotional state of “The Good Morrow.” Balanced, unmoving, non-reflective: this is the type of affect that “The Good Morrow” seeks and declares in its description of the lovers’ domestic bliss. In admitting happiness into its bedroom, and in comparing the lovers’ happiness to others’, “The Sun Rising,” in contrast, ultimately also admits an emotional trajectory. And in so doing, this poem helps invent happiness in the way we mean it now: not just a passive, reactive joy, but an emotion that we might plan on and actively pursue.
Let us see how this trajectory in “The Sun Rising” comes to pass. The first step is to create a space for the lovers that is not as insular as that of “The Good Morrow.” At first, “The Sun Rising” does profess the aim of excluding the outside world from the lovers’ domestic self-sufficiency: their timeless love is contrasted to the sun’s time-bound “motions,” which govern the call to work urged upon both enterprising “court-huntsmen” and “country ants” and unwilling “Late schoolboys, and sour prentices” (6-8). Significantly, however, the speaker of “The Sun Rising” does not simply bifurcate the outside world from the inside. Rather, the poem’s second stanza moves to transfer outside to inside. The speaker begins this process by patterning himself upon celestial phenomena, asserting that a mere “wink” of the eye could “eclipse and cloud” the sun’s beams entirely (13). Then the speaker maps the world’s entire geography onto the beloved’s body, asking the sun “Whether both thʼIndias of spice and mine” over which it shines as it traverses from east to west “Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me” (17-18). Finally, transmuting landmass to nations, the speaker declares in the poem’s last stanza that “She’is all states, and all princes, I, / Nothing else is. / Princes do but play us” (21-23). Having momentarily erased the external world altogether (“Nothing else is”), the speaker reverses himself to let the external world continue to exist (“Princes do but play us”) even though he considers it but a poor “mimic” (24) of the bedroom.
Since the “states” the beloved embodies exist only in relation to the state of the world without, those states ultimately take on not just a geopolitical but also a human, affective dimension. If the external world is defined by its inhabitants’ pursuit of status, honor, and wealth, the domestic interior is defined by love. But there is no love without the comparison to what others value: “Princes do but play us; compared to this, / All honour’s mimic; all wealth alchemy” (24-25). In other words, while the designation of himself as “all princes” gives the speaker of “The Sun Rising” more than a hint of the overbearing control asserted by the speaker of “The Good Morrow,” the lines that include this metaphor also introduce the important concept of relationality. The speaker believes the lovers’ bliss superior to that of all others, but the activities and opinions of those others—second-rate though they may be—must be acknowledged in order for the speaker to establish that belief. And it is this relationality that helps create the sense that the lovers are happy not in the old sense of “lucky,” nor in the classical and medieval sense of passive joy, but in the way we mean it today. The sun and its affiliated social concerns are “half as happy” as the lovers because the lovers, in contrast, have their priorities straight. Whereas those engaged in the business of the exterior world pursue such goals as honor or wealth, the lovers have pursued love. Thus “The Sun Rising” utterly casts aside Aquinas’s view that earthly happiness is passive, as well as Aristotle’s view that people’s happiness consists only of restraining their appetites. Active and extreme—and perfectly satisfied in its activity and its extremity—the love of “The Sun Rising” proposes earthly happiness as possible, desirable, and forward-thinking.
The introduction of happiness, that newfangled emotion, adds several other dimensions to “The Sun Rising” that differentiate it from the claustrophobic solipsism of “The Good Morrow.” The speaker of “The Good Morrow” determinedly fuses the two lovers’ identities: they are two hemispheres joined, or they are two substances mixed so equally that they become a third, united, undying substance. While the speaker of “The Sun Rising” is deeply invested in the “we” and “us” of the lovers’ union, this poem, in contrast, does not use tropes that join the lovers into a singularity. Furthermore, having established that others outside the bedroom have different aims than the lovers do, the speaker tacitly introduces the possibility that the beloved, as a person differentiated from him, might have different aims than he does—even if she does not, in the moment, express them.
That possibility of a differentiated future for the beloved of “The Sun Rising,” though slight and subtle, is reinforced by the poem’s shifting portrayal of time. Whereas the poem’s beginning exempts the timelessness of the lovers from the timebound solar “motions” obeyed by everyone else, the poem’s end invites the sun itself into the bedroom: “Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; / This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere” (29-30). It might be argued that lodging the sun in the lovers’ bed-world stops time. But the end of the poem, like its beginning, also labels the sun as old: “Busy old fool…. / Thine age asks ease” (1, 27). In astronomical terms, this is an odd identifier, since the sun in the astronomy of Donne’s era was thought of as perfect and hence ageless. When Galileo in 1610 used his telescope to detect sun spots, he threatened to upend all of then-current science, since he was imputing imperfection to the solar surface. Donne, too, may be describing the sun as mutable by describing the sun as aged: if the sun is young in the morning, it is old in the evening. In other words, the course of the poem acknowledges the sun’s motion. Time passes. And if time passes, change is possible.
Modern happiness will require in fact require the very elements that “The Sun Rising” adds to the lovers’ bliss in its final stanza. First, change. The pursuit of happiness, the Declaration of Independence insists, is a modern right: but to pursue happiness in the future is to recognize that we do not necessarily have it now. Second, relationality. In his chapter on happiness in Leviathan, a book written some four decades after Donne’s lyric poems, Thomas Hobbes demolishes the idea that the gifted are granted a larger share of earthly joy: “Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable.”8 Because we are all more or less equal, we are all equally likely to be happy—or unhappy, for that matter. But it is also this equality that is our salvation. Because we wish to be happy, we enter into social interaction in order to draw up what Hobbes calls “convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.”9
Eventually, of course, what Hobbes comes to in Leviathan is the idea that the articles of peace on which modern happiness depends will work well only if we agree to be ruled by an absolute monarch. But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Hobbes founds happiness first upon a free and productive discussion among equals. The beloved in “The Sun Rising” has nothing to say, it is true. But we should emend that observation to note that she has nothing to say just yet. In the course of time, the lovers’ continued happiness—modern, active, happiness on this earth both in the present and in a changing future— may well depend on her voicing her opinion.
1All citations to “The Good Morrow” and “The Sun Rising” are to John Donne, John Donne, ed. John Carey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); the poems are cited parenthetically in the text by line number.
Return to Reference.
2“Curtains” likely refers to bed curtains, which were common in the England of Donne’s day, rather than window curtains, which were rare. When used, a cloth over the window was in any case in one piece, not split into two, and was thus called a “curtain” rather than the plural “curtains.” See Charles Randall, The Encyclopedia of Window and Bed Coverings: Historical Perspectives, Classic Designs, Contemporary Creations (Orange, CA: CRI Media, 2013), 10-11.
Return to Reference.
3Donne’s science here derives from several sources, all of them interested in creating something fundamentally unchanging: Galen, who posited that a body with equally mixed “humors” (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) would be in a state of perfect health; Aristotle, who generally thought of mixed substances as unstable but imagined that two substances perfectly and uniformly mixed might yield a third substance that would not be subject to alteration; and alchemy, which believed that mercury and sulfur, if mixed in perfect proportions, would produce gold—the one entirely incorruptible, eternal metal. See Wolfram Schmidgen, Exquisite Mixture: The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 25-28; and Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 35-36.
Return to Reference.
4See Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Grove Press, 2006), 49-50; and Ignacio L. Götz, Conceptions of Happiness, rev. ed. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010), 50-51. McMahon refers to Nichomachean Ethics 13.37-43 for Aristotle’s assumption that rational happiness is impossible for all but a few (489n63).
Return to Reference.
6Aquinas, Summa I.II.23.4. For earthly joy as a concupiscent passion that is felt only in repose, see Aquinas, Summa I.II.25.1.
Return to Reference.
7Aquinas, Summa II.II.28.3. Aquinas is drawing from Augustine, who in Book 19 of The City of God reviews ancient theories of happiness and concludes that earthly joy is illusory and that the only true happiness is that felt in heaven.
Return to Reference.
8Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin edition of 1668, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 74.
Return to Reference.
9Hobbes, Leviathan, 78.
Return to Reference.