Donne: A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day

December 13, 2018

Today I would like to share one of my favourite poems…

Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
St Lucy’s name comes from the Latin word for light (lux, lucis) and her feast day is on 13 December in the church calendar. In mediaeval times, before the reform of the calendar and when it was increasingly out of step with the seasons and the stars, her feast day would have coincided with the shortest day of the year, when one could at last begin to feel hopeful that the worst was over, and there would gradually be more light as the days began to lengthen. Donne obviously felt the same as I and many others do, that this is a really grim time of the year…

This is not an easy poem: in fact the sense is pretty impenetrable without notes and a glossary. I’m not going to provide those, as this post is not an exercise in literary criticism, merely some of my thoughts by way of appreciation of a poem I’ve liked for many years. It was probably written on the occasion of a serious illness or a parting, rather than a death; it may or may not be about his wife.

In the first stanza, images of short days, lack of light, shrinkage and death abound, moving into attempts to imagine emptiness, absence, a total vacuum in the second. Images form the science (?) of alchemy, hard enough for us to understand nowadays, extend the idea. I sense Donne retreating ever further into himself as the poem progresses, as he tries to picture an elixir – a distillation – from nothing. Others may look forward to eventual new life as spring approaches, he says, and this is a feeling many of us may share, the sense of relief after that shortest day has finally passed and we can look forward to the – however gradual – lengthening of the days again, but the poet feels he cannot: the final stanza allows that possibility to other, inferior lovers. The sun moves into the zodiacal sign of the goat – Capricorn – symbol also of lust and sexual pleasure.

The poem is an epitome of despondency, sadness, melancholy; self-indulgent, perhaps, but a feeling in which I find it perversely pleasurable to wallow for a while each December. It’s a wonderful example of Donne’s wit, not in the sense of humour but in the older sense of knowledge, as well as a marvellous example of the extended metaphor or conceit. Notice how cleverly the very last line echoes and mirrors the first…

2 Responses to “Donne: A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day”

  1. kirstwrites Says:

    That’s a suitably dark and gloomy poem for this time of year. Might just have to curl up in front of the fire with a glossary and decipher it one evening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • litgaz Says:

      I’d planned to post it last year but couldn’t decide how to write about it. This year the brief appreciation won out over the full on double-period sixth-form practical lesson it needed…


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