Friday, May 08, 2009

Break of Day by John Donne - a Poetry Friday post

Today, a love poem in rhymed couplets from John Donne, who lived in the late 16th and early 17th century. About two hundred years after his birth, Dr. Samuel Johnson dubbed him a "Metaphysical Poet", part of (and in truth, founder of) a loosely associated group of poets who used art, history and religion as extended metaphor (known as a conceit, a word which here has absolutely nothing to do with being stuck-up. The Metaphysical Poets delighted in using what was considered unusual imagery and syntax in their poems. Expediency caused him to convert from Catholicism to the Anglican church; Donne was eventually forced by King James I to become an Anglican clergyman (by royal decree preventing him from occupying any other job, no less).

Many of Donne's poems dwell on issues of death and mortality, including one of my favorites of his works, "Death Be Not Proud". Today, however, I'm featuring one of his love poems that was, as it turns out, actually written as a song and set to music by three different contemporary composers: John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and William Corkine.

Break of Day
by John Donne

Tis true, 'tis day; what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise, because 'tis light?
Did we lie down, because 'twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

Light hath no tongue, but is all eye;
If it could speak as well as spy,
This were the worst that it could say,
That being well, I fain* would stay,
And that I loved my heart and honor so,
That I would not from him, that had them, go.

Must business thee from hence remove?
O, that's the worst disease of love.
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
He which hath business, and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.

*fain: happily

Discussion and analysis

As mentioned earlier, the poem is written in rhymed couplets using iambic feet. That said, in each stanza Donne follows two couplets (four lines) of iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) with a single couplet (two lines) of iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line). The incorporation of an additional foot, or two syllables, in the final lines of each stanza adds weight to those closing lines as well as slowing those lines down a bit (after all, it takes a bit longer to get through those lines).

The poem is sometimes considered an aubade, a poem or song about lovers separating at dawn (like his poem, "The Sun Rising"), although as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that this is not truly a love song, but is instead a complaint about the man's priorities. John Donne writes the poem from a female point of view, something that becomes apparent for the first time in the second stanza. The first stanza asks whether the man must get up and go just because it's now daylight, making the point that their decision to lie down together was not based on it being dark. "If we found each other despite it being dark, should we not remain together despite it being daylight?" is a slightly update variant of the final question of the first stanza.

The second stanza features a personification of "light", which is characterized as being all-seeing, but incapable of speech. If light could speak, however, (says the female speaker) the worst it would be able to say is that the speaker would happily stay with her man, based on her own principles of love and honor, both of which are qualities that she attributes to the man as well.

The final stanza makes clear that the people involved in the poem are not nobility, and at leisure, but are working folk: The man must rise in order to attend to his business concerns, and is not at leisure to love. "Love can permit the poor (meaning those who aren't good at it), the foul (those who are unpleasant) and the false (those who are impure of heart), but a busy man doesn't have time for it" is what those middle lines are getting at. Like the commonplace phrase that "the law is a jealous mistress", the notion expressed in the final stanza is that business is so consuming that a man who is dedicated to his work treats his loved ones in the same way that a married man treats his mistress (presumably with less than full and ardent attention).


Joy Kelley said...

Thanks for such a clear analysis. I teach high school online, as shall direct my kiddos to your blogs.
Joy Kelley

Kelly Fineman said...

What a lovely thing to say - thanks, Joy!

Anonymous said...

I understand the poem enough now to write an essay about it. THANK YOU

Molly Daugherty said...

thanks for this! I'm analyzing it for a school assignment and it was very helpful!

Anonymous said...

thanks its very helpful

Anonymous said...

This was great! Thank you so much for taking the time to post this! Your explanation was a big help to me as a conducted my own research on this poem.

Randi said...

We sang a version of this in my high school choir class.For some reason, the words "I loved my heart" have stuck with me ever since.