Susan Siferd
Eng. 640
Dr. Seamus Cooney
Sept. 16, 1995

Commentary on Donne's "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day..."

The poem:
	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 interred; 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 ruined 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 limbeck, am the grave
	      Of all that's nothing.  Oft a flood
		Have we two wept, and so
	Drowned 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.
Donne calls his poem a "nocturnal," a reflective, somber meditation, and the subject is the alchemy of love, how the speaker has been transformed by love. Like many of his poems, the meaning is obscure; even after numerous readings, I am uncertain how he feels about it. "He [love] ruined me," Donne says (17); "I am re-begot/ Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not" (17-18). That seems pretty clear; yet there is a note of superiority in the last stanza, where he describes other lovers as ruled by "the lesser sun" (38), in contrast to himself, who is ruled by a "Sun" with a capital S,' and an almost religious tone in his resolution to "prepare towards her, and let me call/ This hour her Vigil, and her Eve" (43-44). Is it possible that Donne was deliberately ambiguous? Or that he was ambivalent himself about the transformation? As an Anglican priest, Donne certainly would accept the necessity of dying to one's carnal appetites in order to attain a higher, purer level of being. And yet he wrote some rather lusty verse celebrating sexual love. Or have I merely been puzzling over this poem for so long that I'm "seeing [it] double," so to speak?

The poem "takes place" at midnight , the day of the winter solstice, when the world is suspended between death and life. This setting befits the poet's situation; his lover has apparently died. Were he an ordinary man, he would now anticipate a new love, one based on sensual pleasure. But he has been transformed by love; "ruined" by it (17); so much so, that in the fourth stanza he questions whether he is still a man. Although the poem is filled with images of death and of endings, the "nothingness" described as "chaos" (stanza three) evokes an association with the Chaos which preceded creation in Genesis. Midnight will give way to a new day; winter to spring. Other lovers will enjoy their summer, brief though it may be. That this is St. Lucy's Day is significant, not only because in Donne's day it marked the solstice and was thus the shortest day of the year, but because, as a virgin martyr, Lucy, too, eschewed physical love for a spiritual one, and gave her life for it. At the poem's conclusion, the speaker resolves to mark the day as the "Vigil and [the] Eve" (44) of his dead lover, thus "canonizing" her, elevating her to an equal rank with the Saint.

The form of the poem reflects the plodding, methodical movement of the poet's mind as he meditates. Each of the five stanzas is nine lines long and identically arranged on the page so that visual emphasis falls on the three shorter lines "buried" within each stanza. The meter of the poem is hard to define because it is uneven. Donne alters it a lot for emphasis and writes in almost nothing but monosyllables, all of which get accented. One possible effect of this choice would be to produce an angry tone; but the poet doesn't seem to be angry. The lines move with a power that arises from meaning more than emotion. Perhaps the best way to describe the tone of the poem is "resigned," the movement as "inexorable." Donne, the world, the lovers of the last stanza, and the reader are all being moved along inexorably by forces which no one can control. This even rhythm is underscored by the regular rhyme scheme, (abbacccdd), which is carried through each stanza.

The poem is not an easy one to understand. Like a great many of Donne's poems, it requires numerous rereadings, and finally the reader must rely on easier stanzas as well as on imagery and association to try to fill in the gaps of understanding. As already stated, the first stanza provides the time setting and contains several images of death, of absence, and of things which have been used up or are stunted in size. St. Lucy's Day, being a scant seven hours long, isn't much of a day at all. The sun's rays are mere "squibs," small fireworks that spurt and fizzle even as they burn; the reader thinks of the day as having fizzled out. "[T]he whole world's sap is sunk" evokes the state of a tree in winter: dormant, not growing. The "hydroptic" earth in line 6 is a thirsty one which has drunk all the "general balm," a soothing, healing substance, and as a result, "life is shrunk" (7). The word "Whither," placed at the beginning of the following line, is immediately associated with "wither," and thus emphasizes the image of a parched, barren earth. Yet, as lifeless as all this is, the speaker is in even a worse state, being an "epitaph" to all else (9): a cipher, a sad commentary that sums up the sad state of the rest of the world.

As the epitaph, would-be lovers would do well to study the speaker, Donne advises in stanza two. His assertion that "I am every dead thing" receives emphasis by its position in the short line, line 3, because it stands out from the text. He describes the alchemy which love has performed on him in almost mathematically exponential terms: he was empty to begin with, but love managed to "express a quintessence even from nothingness,/ From dull privations, and lean emptiness" (14-16). Donne squeezes as much emptiness as he can from these words. He is deader than dead; emptier than empty; "re-begot/ Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not" (17-18). His very "begetting" is described as non-life-giving; infertile; dead. So much for any hope of "new life," come spring.

In contrast to the preceding stanzas, three is ... very wet. The speaker describes how he and his love often "wept" a "flood" of tears; enough to "drown" the whole world, and themselves as well. The only growth that occurs in the poem is the result of these tears, which result not in growth or in life, but in "two chaoses" (26). The rest of the stanza is obscure. What does the poet mean by "often absences/ Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses" (26-27)? He probably does not mean physical absences from one another. He might be describing spiritual or emotional distance, but in any case, the result has not been happy or positive. The images are consistent with earlier ones: absence, emptiness, lifelessness, and are not the ones with which we normally associate romantic love. Their love has been neither happy nor life- giving, but perhaps this is neither lover's "fault." The poet doesn't seem angry; he doesn't blame either himself or the woman, only love itself.

Stanza four reveals the real reason for the speaker's claim to have been ruined by love. His lover is dead, and as a result , he doubts whether he is a man any more, or merely "Of the first nothing the elixir grown" (29). "[F]first nothing" might be a way to describe himself in negative terms as the offspring or product of love; not as any form of life, but the absence of life. Once again, Donne seems to multiply nothing by nothing and produces nothing to the Nth degree. The speaker goes on to protest that beasts, plants, and even inanimate objects like stones have "ends" and "means" and possess particular properties which define their being. They are capable of feeling. But he has no identifying properties any more, no feeling, and doubts his very being. "As shadow,'a light and body must be here" (36), and yet he perceives nothing.

In the last stanza, the poet again addresses the lovers of stanza two, "for whose sake the lesser sun/ At this time to the Goat is run/ To fetch new lust, and give it you" (38-40). He advises them to enjoy their summer, although he doesn't seem to envy them their carnal joys. He will know no renewal of his own "Sun," capital S,' and so will follow her to "her long night's festival," a somber, dark, and joyless festival indeed. Whether he is prepared to actually die or, more probably, merely to mourn her loss, it doesn't matter; they are for him one and the same thing. Thus the poem concludes in the same meditative tone with which it opens, and almost at the same point, except that his dead love has replaced Lucy as the saint whose "Vigil" and "Eve" are commemorated.

The poem contrasts sharply with the pretty pastoral love poems of Donne's day. So many of his poems are about love, either romantic or spiritual, that it seems fitting he should produce one in which the two are blended. Or perhaps a better word might be "confused," since it remains unclear to me what the poet's attitude is, finally, towards the alchemy of love. Ambiguity, even ambivalence may be as clear as Donne can get, however, in such a poem. After all, a poet who can write such disparate works as "Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed" and the Holy Sonnets is certainly a complex man, and his works cannot be easily interpreted. That's exactly the pleasure of reading Donne's work.