Aske for those Kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.
When Donne's speaker suggests to the sun, here at the conclusion of the second stanza of "The Sunne Rising," that he and his lady are a compaction of all royalty, he supplies a true crux for his entire argument. In the first stanza, he has divided all living things into two categories--lovers and nonlovers--and he has implied that even the physical laws of the universe must give place to those of persons caught up in the larger universe of passion. In the third stanza, he will go on to claim that nothing else is, surely the ultimate argument for the priority of any state of being.
In the first stanza the persona has mentioned royalty: the court huntsmen, as reluctant to arise as late schoolboys and sour prentices, must be alerted that the king wishes to ride. That king, then, along with his attendants, falls into the classification of nonlover. The ones in this bed, however, are special kings. They are paradigmatic, and among them they have emptied the material world of significant kingship. I believe that these second-stanza kings are types of the kings or magi who sought and found the Christchild at Bethlehem.
As early as the time of Tertullian (145-22-0), the magi were thought of as kings, most probably because they were seen as the principals in the fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalms 71:10, "Reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent, reges Arabum et Saba dona adducent." Tertullian comments that in the East the magi were generally regarded as kings (Against Marcion 3.13). Romanesque and Gothic sculptors and painters produced many cycles of episodes in the lives of these saint-kings. In the West they are depicted consistently as kings, not magi, wearing crowns rather than the Phrygian caps given them by artists of the East. A favorite incident shows the angel warning them by night that they must not return to Herod but go immediately to their own countries. Invariably the three lie together in one bed, under a common coverlet, wearing their crowns, with the angel appearing above them. On a capital at the cathedral of St.-Lazare in Autun, which Donne may have seen, Gislebertus carved the angel awakening one of the kings and pointing above to the star. On the west facade of the cathedral of Notre-Dame at Amiens, an anonymous sculptor has fashioned a three-kings program in a series of quatrefoils. In one they lie sleeping, about to be warned by the angel. This image Donne certainly saw repeatedly in the course of his stay in Amiens in 1611-1612. Or perhaps he had noticed the window in Canterbury Cathedral, where the kings enjoy their last moment of sleep before being told of Herod's chicanery.
The biblical kings, not unlike Donne's metaphorical ones, have seen the Word made flesh. They operate according to a set of divine instructions nicely corresponding to the transcendent vision of the persona addressing the sun. They surpass the earthly politics of King Herod, just as the lovers do the mundane activity of the hunting king. And medieval sculptors and painters well knew, despite the sweet ingenuousness of the Eastern kings bundling together, that they afford an amusing picture. Donne's speaker likewise, though passionately earnest, strikes a droll note in his initial words ("Busie old foole, unruly Sunne"). This complex tonality varies but never falters. Donne's seriocomic trope of kings in one bed pleases us in something of the same way that the biblical kings have instructed and delighted centuries of viewers.
[1.] I have used the text of John T. Shawcross's edition of The Complete Poetry of John Donne (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1967) 93.
[2.] In addition to these images that Donne quite possibly saw, one could adduce others that he just possibly might have seen. The kings lie together in windows at Lyons, Le Mans, Chartres, and Laon, that I know of. Perhaps their earliest representation in stone is a carved capital in the cloister of St.--Trophime in Arles. They also appear in a tympanum in the north porch of the cathedral at Chartres.
By MARY ELLEN RICKEY, University of Louisville