Englische Philologie (B.A.)

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Playing with Love: Early Modern Poetry (Literaturwissenschaft)

John Donne can be seen as the enfant terrible of the English Renaissance. Born a Catholic, he was one of the leading ‘university wits’ in the London law schools of the Inns of Court, before he converted to Anglicanism and became a powerful preacher at St. Paul’s. In his early years widely known as a ‘great frequenter of ladies and of plays’, he influentially contributed to the early modern mania of writing love poetry but turned the traditional Petrarchan model of unrequited love into a game of imaginatively exploring alternatives.


            ’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?

5             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,

10            That being well, I fain would stay,

                And that I loved my heart and honour 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,

15            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.

(John Donne, “Break of Day”)


After carefully reading the poem several times (and making sure that you understand all the words), please answer the following (three) questions.

Question #1

Which of the following statements would you say are possibly correct? 


not really possible

The writer of the poem is male. 

John Donne is a man’s name and it is not a pseudonym, so there is no reason to assume that the author is not a man.

The speaker of the poem is a man. 

Since the one who wants to leave is male (‘busied man’16, ‘He’17, ‘married man’18), it would be extremely unlikely for the Renaissance to openly celebrate a male speaker asking a man to stay with him in bed, even though it is not explicitly said that the speaker is a woman.

The speaker of the poem is a woman. 

Since the speaker for historical reasons cannot really be male, it would in all likelihood have to be a woman (turning the text into a cross-gendered poem)—though, admittedly, there is no explicit textual element indicating this.

The speaker and the addressee are together in a bed in the morning.

The words ‘rise from’2 and ‘lie down’4 indicate that the speaking takes place somewhere (‘hither’5) where the speaker and the addressee are still lying ‘together’6, though the sun is already up as indicated (among other elements) by the title of the poem (“Break of Day”).

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Task #2

Decide at which point in the poem the following statements can be made by the addressee.

stanza 1

stanza 2

stanza 3

stanza 3

I will go now because I have to go to work. 

If stanza 3 argues that ‘business’13 cannot be a reason against ‘love’14/15/17, this implies that the addressee seems to have brought up this new argument between stanzas 2 and 3.

I will go now because otherwise the neighbours will talk. 

If stanza 2 argues that morals (‘spy’8, ‘the worst’9) cannot be brought forth against love, this must have been the addressee’s second argument against staying between stanza 1 and 2.

All right, I will stay. 

If the speaker’s persuasion is successful (as the superlative ‘worst’14 and the reference to sin in the ‘married man’18 try to imply), there might (hopefully) be no further counter-argument against this and the two will remain in bed together, with the poem ending in fulfilment.

It’s day, I think I will go now. 

The concession in the first line ‘’Tis true, ’tis day’1 implies that the speaker is already answering something that has been uttered before the poem actually begins, which means that the addressee seems to have brought forth the argument of time against love before stanza 1.

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Question #3

Which of the following statements would you consider to be possibly correct? 


not really possible

The poem is a sonnet. 

A sonnet usually has 14 lines organised into either two quatrains (four lines) and two tercets (three lines) or three quatrains and a couplet (two lines), which is both not the case here.

The poem could belong to a collection called Songs and Sonnets

The (posthumous) collection of love poems by John Donne has been called Songs and Sonnets.

The poem does not follow any form. 

Since there are clearly discernible repetitions and structures the poem cannot be said to have no form at all.

The poem’s form is regular. 

The poem is regular in the sense that it has three parallel stanzas (for the three different arguments), each having six lines in iambic tetrameters (a/b) or pentameters (c) and all of them following the same rhyme pattern of aabbcc.

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