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A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day – John Donne

Posted by Joseph Moore on December 12, 2010

‘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,
Compared 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.

UPDATE: Final rewrite to make this a little more scholarly. John Donne wrote this poem around 1627 as a mature man in his 50’s, a decade after the death of Shakespeare, and some 90 years into England’s Protestant revolt. There is some dispute over whose death this poem is about – I’d always thought this poem reflected Donne’s pain at the death of his wife. The internal evidence -

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.

Seems to me to argue for ‘wife’, since the relationship described seems too personal, in a way, for friends and patrons. His wife Anne had died in 1617, and he evidently never got over her. So, we’ll assume wife here. It bears noting that death visited the Donne family often – two stillborn children, several of his 10 live born children died young, his mother, father, brother, and so on predeceased him. So, the counter argument is that Nocturnal is addressed to someone else or even is just a more general lament.

Astronomy, the dead of winter and alchemy provide the overriding images in this poem, and are the source for Donne’s characteristic paradoxes. Like Dante 300 years earlier, Donne sets his work in time by references to the heavens. The darkness and death of winter provide the raw materials, as it were, for the alchemy of love.

Under the pre-reform Julian calendar used in 17th century England,  December 13, St. Lucy’s day, was also the winter solstice – the shortest day. Donne’s opening imagery is all about the dead of winter as experienced at midnight on the day of the saint of light (Lucy means ‘light’). He tells us that, no matter how grim things look outside, it’s nothing compared to how grim things are to him.

The traditional story of St. Lucy would have been very well known to Donne’s contemporaries, and would have colored their understanding of this poem. She was an early Roman martyr, who, according to legend, was pledged in marriage even though she had vowed to live as a virgin for Christ. Her very persistent betrothed admired her eyes, and claimed he could not live without them – so, she plucked them out and handed them to him.

This seems over-the-top crazy to us, but makes more sense in context – she was either going to renounce her vows and her Christianity, or die – so the gesture was being made by someone who knew she was  not long for this world.  Whether she died sighted or blind made little difference to her.

So, it’s important to keep in mind while reading this poem that St. Lucy deprived herself of the sight of this merry world in order to have her true love – Christ. Again, despite how we moderns tend to think, to this day dedicated virgins – nuns and sister and others – think of themselves as the Brides of Christ, and not in some limp-wristed abstract way. They are consciously giving their bodies and lives to Christ, to do His will, unto death. These women are consumed by their Love. This would have been the common understanding in Donne’s day.

Stanza I:

Here Donne anchors his poem in a particular time and place – the dead of winter in England.  He starts by describing the failing light – seven hours of weak sunlight, and 17 hours of night – and moves on to the nature, which he compares to dormant winter trees: ‘the world’s whole sap is sunk’. Finally, when he has conveyed just how dreary, dark and dead the world is on this particular day in this particular place, he says that ‘all these’ – the Sun, the world, life – ‘seem to laugh, compared with me, who am their epitaph.’

A couple obscure images:

light squibs – a misfire – a squib – produced a little, ineffective flash of light. You kept your powder in a ‘flask’. The Sun is misfiring, producing ‘no constant rays’.

th’ hydroptic earth – the earth, like a sufferer of dropsy, is swollen with the sap of the trees which it has drunk down.

bed’s-feet – the referenced is unknown.

Stanza II and III:

He begins by addressing lovers, specifically ‘you who shall lovers be.’ This is, somehow, meant to be a cautionary tale to those who might end up lovers. The sorry state the world finds itself in as described in the first stanza is acknowledged here to be temporary – spring will eventually come, and with it a new, living world. Yet Donne will have none of it – he is every dead thing.

The alchemy references in the second stanza and the first half of the third culminate in  “I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave Of all, that’s nothing.” A limbec is a still, used by alchemists to distill aqueous vapors – liquids – down to their essences. Donne has been distilled by Love to the grave of all. A quintessence – a fifth essence – was imagined to be the ultimate distillate, the essence of the essence. Starting with the raw materials, as it were, of  nothingness, dull privations, lean emptiness, Donne is distilled down to abject negatives – he is reborn as absence, darkness and death.

Donne is, in a way, a work of art – Love’s art, which is alchemy. Alchemy was meant to turn base metals into gold. Here,  Love’s alchemy is the art of creating a golden love from the raw materials of two lovers. But not for Donne – Love  practices a new art. Instead of the golden love that all lovers seek, it turns Donne’s love, as described at the end of the third stanza, into something less than nothing.

The beginning of the third stanza compares the normal world – an Aristotelian world of form and soul – to Donne’s utter lack of ‘all that’s good’. In the second half, Donne addresses his departed lover, and describes, not an idealized unapproachable love, but one full of tears, chaos and absences. It’s telling that he describes his and his lover’s state when apart as carcasses – bodies – but not nothing.

Stanza IV:

Donne revisits in this stanza her death, and is launched into confusion. He would know it if he were a man. He would prefer being a beast, a plant or even a stone to his current nothingness. Even an ordinary nothing, as a shadow, exists in a world of body and light. But he ‘is none’

Stanza V:

Finally, we return to the astronomical observations from the first stanza. Donne takes us from the world on a certain day at a certain time – a world known to all, and so impersonal – through his own pain, down to a description of his life with his lover and his state upon her death, and then, beaten, returns us to the real world. He knows this world is peopled by lovers, lit by a ‘lessor sun’, and fueled by natural lust – I think here he means both the sexual desires natural to lovers and that lust for life he is so much missing.

One of the most curious lines:

Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.

After all this, he refers to his dead lover as enjoying a festival – a long night’s festival, at that. By the end of his life, Donne was a very religious man, even by the standards of his age. He could hardly describe his sorrow without acknowledging that his dead lover is now in Heaven.  Despite his loss, he is not despairing. Instead, he very quietly expresses his hope:

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.

He is preparing towards her, on this vigil and eve – as in, Easter Vigil, and Christmas Eve. The remainder of his life is but the vigil and eve of her festival, it may be a low point – both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight – yet, it leads to something – to an eternal spring. So Donne will call everything left in his life his lover’s vigil and eve, and prepare to ‘celebrate’ the festival with his lover, at the same time he acknowledges that the good of this world no longer holds anything for him – it is for those other lovers.

Obscure item: the lesser sun At this time to the Goat is run – the lesser sun is the one up in the sky. In the dead of winter in the northern hemisphere, it is in the constellation Capricorn – the Goat – and is assumed to be fetching the lust it will soon be doling out in spring. But Donne will have none.

So, here’s a man who had fooled around for years, fallen in love, straightened out, married and lived with his wife for 16 years (and 10 children) – and then she died. He never remarried.

Speaking of understatement, I love dry historical understatement as much as the next guy, but “John Donne was born in Bread Street, London in 1572 to a prosperous Roman Catholic family – a precarious thing at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was rife in England.” – a snippet from a life of Donne – seems maybe a little too tame. Donne’s brother Henry was imprisoned for harboring a priest, tortured into betraying him, and died in prison. The priest was hanged until almost – but not quite – dead, drawn – having his entrails ripped from his still-living body – and quartered – torn to pieces.

So, yea, anti-Catholic sentiment was rife.

Donne lost his Catholic faith after having seen much of his family and relatives suffer for it – his mother was a More, related to St. Thomas More. He spent the family fortune on travel, wine, women and song, and wrote a lot of sexy poetry about it before returning to England to pursue a career as a diplomat – a career he threw away when he married the niece of his noble benefactor over his and her father’s objections. As a result, he lived in poverty his entire married life. Then as now, writing poetry is not a meal ticket. Eventually, he was ordained an Anglican minister upon the King’s order and over Donne’s objections.

Van Doren comments somewhere to the effect that Donne favors washing over the reader with waves of images and emotions, and doesn’t really make sense if read too closely. While I can see that in other Donne poems, this particular poem is pretty tightly coherent.

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