22 pages 44 minutes read

John Donne

Break of Day

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Although far more familiar to contemporary readers for his witty and often dense theological speculations and for his somber meditations, as his own life neared its end, of the implications of mortality and the fate of the soul, British poet John Donne (1572-1631) also penned a considerable body of love poetry, both lyrically spiritual and elevated and scandalously erotic and sensual. Writing during the height of the High Renaissance in England, Donne created a signature style: lines that defied conventional assumptions about meter and rhyme, that used eccentric metaphors and jarring similes that both surprised and perplexed, and that experimented with perspective (the voice speaking the verses). Donne published very little of his poetry during his lifetime. He was a lawyer by training, and a career courtier until, after a much-publicized conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism, he became an ordained minister. His poetry, after nearly four centuries of neglect, was rediscovered by a gathering of British and American poets who, after the devastating emotional and spiritual trauma of World War One, were eager to upend every assumption about poetry in an effort to create a modern sensibility. These self-described Modernists, most prominently Irish mystic William Butler Yeats and American spiritualist T. S. Eliot, found in Donne’s startling and original verse a kindred spirit and a kind of aesthetic mentor.

Poet Biography

The life narrative of John Donne is defined not by his poetry but rather by his religion, or more specifically his nearly four decades long struggle to find a way to resolve the Catholicism into which he was born and the Anglican faith that controlled the monarchy and became the defining religion of the British court. Anglicanism was a kind of British Christianity that had removed the Pope as the head of the Church and instead elevated the British monarch as its spiritual head. Ironically, Donne himself was a direct descendant of St. Thomas More, the Catholic philosopher martyred by Henry VIII for defying the king’s break with Rome.

Born in 1572, just eight years after Shakespeare, Donne, born into a prominent and respected Catholic family, had the misfortune to be born in the midst of the great upheaval over Britain’s split with the Pope. After his father’s death when he was only 3, Donne and his family endured waves of anti-Catholic violence. Early on a precocious reader and avid student, Donne was admitted for study at Oxford University just after his 11th birthday. Although he would then study briefly at Cambridge, Donne never completed his degree—a condition of graduation from Cambridge was that he swear allegiance to the British king as head of the Church. Donne stood for a law degree, but he spent most of his early twenties (and most of his inheritance) on a bohemian life of alcohol, travel, and women. Contemporary scholars believe it was during these carefree times that Donne wrote “Break of Day.”

His brother’s arrest and imprisonment for refusing to renounce his Catholic faith marked a moment of reckoning for Donne. How could the Catholic God permit this? He began to pursue in earnest a career in government, accepting the post as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton (1540-1617), the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, a lofty court position responsible for protecting from violence the actual physical seal of the Crown. Hounded by the Anglican court of Queen Elizabeth I, Donne converted to Anglicanism as he approached the age of 30, a move more pragmatic than spiritual. Opportunity immediately opened for him. Donne was appointed to Parliament in 1601. However, when he married a woman half his age (who happened to be Lord Egerton’s niece), Donne was banished from the court. For more than a decade he and his steadily growing family struggled to make ends meet.

During this time, Donne penned some of his most famous theological disquisitions. Indeed in 1615 he was ordained into the Anglican ministry. He quickly became known for his fiery preaching and for his elegantly argued sermons. Two years later his wife died in childbirth (struggling to deliver the couple’s 12th child). That began Donne’s decade-long exploration in both verse and essays of mortality and the difficult questions of the afterlife and the nature of the soul. In 1621, with the endorsement of King James I, Donne accepted the post of Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, becoming the de facto Bishop of London. His health worsened. He died in 1631 at the age of 59. His ashes were interred in the churchyard of St. Paul’s.

Poem Text

‘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?  

Oh, 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.

Donne, John. “Break of Day.” Poetry Foundation.

Summary

The poem’s narrative is at once engaging and intriguing. As the title indicates, it is early morning. Two lovers—perhaps married, perhaps more casual, the premise is never specified—linger in each other’s arms, exhausted, after a presumably happy night of lovemaking. With the first light of morning, however, the man hustles to depart, eager, apparently, to attend to the assorted busy-ness of his day, presumably his work. The woman, who serves as the poem’s narrator, chides her lover for being too quick to leave their bed. Indeed, the poem works on a series of the woman’s questions that go unanswered as the woman attempts to understand the curious behavior of her lover.

“Why should we rise,” the woman asks, “because ‘tis light?” (Line 3). The logic escapes her. After all, they did not “lie down” (Line 4) together simply because it was dark, so why get up and part just because it is light? It was not night, she argues with the wit and acumen of an attorney, but rather love (or perhaps passion or most likely a combination of such incendiary emotional urgencies) that brought us together. Not just night. Therefore, why should light, in this case the dawn, not also keep us together? (Line 6). The love has not changed—only the illumination in the bedroom. So, what is the hurry? The questions are anything but rhetorical—she poses them to detain her lover, perhaps to change his mind even as he begins the preparations for his departure.

In the second stanza, the woman makes her case. Eager to lay out her argument, the woman explains that dawn’s light, those first feeble rays of the sunrise now breaking into their bedroom, cannot speak, cannot reveal where they are or what they have been doing. Light is not oral, it is visual. It cannot speak but only see. But if dawn’s light could speak, the “worst that it could say” (Line 9) would be to declare proudly that their lovemaking, based as it is in love and honor, would not, or at least should not, be ended with the break of day. Sunlight should not drive lovers apart. To her lover making ready to leave, she declares that she herself will not go, that she will be true to her heart and to her honor. Their love is now part of the integrity of her identity. In all but words, she demands if love means the same to you, how can you go?

In the closing stanza, the woman realizes the man despite her arguments is going to depart: “Must business thee from hence remove?” (Line 13). Must the demands of your occupation drive you from your lover’s arms? Is taking care of that business more pressing than expressing, sustaining, and sharing our love? The woman claims that busy-ness, then, is the “worst disease of love” (Line 14), a man (typically given Donne’s era) who opts to follow rigorously and unvaryingly the demands of his profession, the routine give and take of a routine workday. If a lover is broke (“poor”); if a lover lacks a certain polish, a certain air of sophistication (“foul”); or even if a lover plays multiple lovers off each other (“false”), the busy man is still worse. “He who hath business and makes love” (Line 17) is a contradiction, such lovers are too much there and not enough here. To make love as a break from the workday, to split the focus that way, to allow the drag of everyday work to distract from the experience of lovemaking, the woman argues in closing, that is an offense worse even than a married man seeking the company of a mistress.

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