Busy old fool, unruly sun, Why dost thou thus, Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
The poem grabs us by insulting us. Or someone. It's hard to tell. Donne is calling someone a busy old fool, but he stalls for just a moment so that we are pulled in.
Fortunately the wait isn't too long; the next phrase tells us that he is talking to the sun. Now you may have heard that talking to inanimate objects is crazy, but in the wide world of poetry, we call that an apostrophe.
Take a closer look at those first two adjectives: "busy" and "old." Those aren't random—he's going to come back to these two ideas at the very end of the poem. John Donne, like many of the people who originally read his poems, was a well-educated lawyer. That means that his poems are carefully constructed arguments and he is setting up his case right from the start.
He also sets up the condescending, brazen tone that is going to carry all the way through the poem. The first half of the first line makes the sun sound like a cranky old man, but then Donne immediately switches the image. He calls the sun unruly, as if it were a child or a pet that misbehaved. This is some serious 17th-century smack talk.
The second line shows us that this is a question, but not one the sun is supposed to answer. You can roughly translate "Why dost thou thus?" as "Why you gotta be like that?"
We get some context in the next line, seeing the sunlight coming through windows and curtains. That repetition of "through" is called parallelism and it works well with the iambic meter to create a nice rhythm.
There's an obnoxious little grammar move that Donne pulls here in the first sentence. He withholds that main verb—"call"—until the very end. He basically says, "Dumb sun, why do you…" and then seven syllables and a whole line pass before he finishes his thought. And it is because he withheld the verb that it hits us so hard; we've been waiting for it. Now we understand why he is so angry—the sun has interrupted his blissful night.
There's also a rhyme. "Sun" doesn't have a rhyming buddy just yet, but "thus" and "us" go together. So the rhyme scheme so far goes a little something like this: ABB. Stay tune for more.
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run? Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide Late school-boys, and sour prentices,
Has your alarm ever gone off and you laid there in bed with this elaborate fantasy that somehow—just for you—the sun wasn't really coming up? That you still had hours and hours of glorious sleepy-dreamy time? Come on, be honest.
That's basically Donne's question here to the sun. Do lovers like us really have to get up just because you started your daily routine? But of course it's a sarcastic question, because Donne is way too good for the sun. So we could translate it more like this: "Did you really expect my lady and I to get up just because you shined in here? You've got to be joking."
Only two lines ago, the sun was an unruly child, but in line 5, Donne changes the metaphor. The sun is now a "saucy, pedantic wretch." Picture the crabby, sarcastic teacher that always had lipstick on her teeth. This new image extends that question in line 4; it may have some power over some people, but definitely not over us. We are way too awesome.
Notice that Donne uses an imperative verb. He isn't just chatting with the sun; he's bossing it around. He commands it to go away and bother other, lesser people.
The next three lines give examples of the types of people the sun still has some power over. Those lesser people move in ascending order from late schoolboys to sullen apprentices making their way to work to servants of royalty to working class folk.
The word "prentices" is short for apprentices. These would have been teenage kids who were learning a craft from a skilled worker. Basically, they are interns in charge of bringing the coffee and doing the dirty work.
Check out the rhymes in these lines. Okay, so there's just one. "Run" rhymes with "sun" from line 1. So now our rhyme scheme goes ABBA.
Go tell court-huntsmen that the King will ride, Call country ants to harvest offices;
The verb changes in line 7 from chiding the kids and teenagers to telling the adults. This is another indication that he is moving up the scale of humanity. This deliberate distinction between social classes has to do with the Renaissance belief in the Great Chain of Being. That's the notion that everything in creation has a specific and determined rank in the eyes of God. So you start down at the bottom with rocks and move all the way up through people and kings and angels to God.
The reference to the king calling his huntsmen is a shout-out to the reigning King James I, who was known to love riding and hunting.
Let's be clear. John Donne never met a metaphor he didn't like. So even though we are already in this elaborate metaphor about the sun telling people what to do, he goes ahead and gives us a mini-metaphor in line 8, referring to peasant farmers as "country ants." In doing so, he is reminding us that he and his lover are above such people. They're higher up in the ranks.
By the way, in this context, "offices" doesn't just mean a cubicle; it means a duty or responsibility.
And last but not least, the rhyme scheme continues: "ride" rhymes with "chide" from line 5, and "offices" rhymes with "prentices" from line 6. That gives us ABBACDCD. Things are gettin' fancy.
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Line 9, with all its commas and flip-flopped syntax is a little bit like a puzzle. At the most basic level, Donne is saying that love doesn't change with the seasons or climates. That little phrase, "all alike" modifies (describes) love and is probably best taken to mean "always the same."
Donne is famous for his lists. When he starts getting ranty, he tends to turn to lists to express his emotions. He does the same thing in two of his most famous poems, "Death be not proud" and "Batter my heart, three-person'd God." Here, the list "hours, days, months" reiterates the consistency, the steadfastness of his love. This is in contrast to many traditional aubades (poems written to a lover at dawn), which deal with the sun shedding light on an illicit relationship. The lovers are more often aware of the fleetingness of passion, rather than of their everlasting bond.
We also get another little peek at that Great Chain of Being mentality here. Notice that Donne orders the units of time from smallest to largest.
The final metaphor is very catchy; in fact, Donne used it elsewhere in a sermon. By referring to hours, days, and months as "rags of time" he is contrasting them with eternity and (we assume) his eternal love for his beloved. It's a clever way to brag: hours and days and months may pass, baby, but my love for you will never die. (You might write that one down, fellas.)
Rhyme scheme complete: ABBACDCDEE. Keep a weather eye out to see if this pattern continues in stanzas 2 and 3.