Saint Lucy’s day is December 13. The Julian calendar was still in use when Donne wrote, so that the Winter solstice and consequently the shortest day of the year (and thus the darkest) fell on the 13th of December, and the feast day of Saint Lucy. It is also the point at which, astrologically speaking, the Sun entered the sign of the Goat (in the modern calendar, Capricorn operates between December 22, the day after the modern Winter solstice, and January 19).
Saint Lucy is, more specifically, Lucia of Syracuse or Saint Lucia, She was a Christian martyr who died during the Diocletian Persecution c. 304 C.E. after a spurned suitor denounced Lucy as a Christian. Lucy (via the Latin form of her name Lucia) is cognate with Latin lux, or light. In terms of both her various legends, one of which includes her eye being gouged out in an effort to force her to renounce Christianity. Saint Lucy is iconographically associated with light and vision (and often, with a cup or platter on which she displays her gouged-out eyes).
Donne’s “A Nocturne upon St. Lucy’s Day” describes the darkest part of the darkest day. The poem revolves around the absence of light. It is also about transformation, in the sense of an alchemist trying to create something out of nothing, or something noble out of chaos, though here the transformation is in the opposite direction; the transformation of light to darkness.
In this poem Donne speaks in the persona of a lover. This is both a convention of his era, and a frequent practice of Donne’s who is sometimes clearly referring to his spouse, Ann More Donne, while at other times his subject is not specific—and may not have been even for Donne himself. Critics have argued that the Lucy referred to in the title is both the saint, and an homage to his patron, Lucy the Countess of Bedford, for whom Donne named a daughter and to whom he dedicated several poems. Others are equally certain that the “she” referenced as his beloved is Donne’s wife. Neither are mutually exclusive, and it might well be that both women were in his thoughts. We do not know the year Donne wrote the poem, which further complicates efforts towards biographic criticism.
I freely confess that the last stanza in particular makes me think Donne was writing about Ann More, and using St. Lucy’s Day (and night) as a vehicle for his mourning. Ann died August 15, 1617, in childbirth, delivering what would have been their twelfth child had the baby lived. She was thirty-three, and was survived by her spouse and seven of their children.
There are several motifs present that are familiar from Donne’s other Songs and Sonnets, including Donne as the model lover, one who has been transformed by his passion for his beloved, and metaphors drawn from the study of alchemy whose goal at its highest level is to transform a base metal like lead to gold.
I have modernized the spelling.
John Donne A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day1
’Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,2
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,
The Sun is spent, and now his flasks3
Send forth light squibs,4 no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk:
The general balm th’ hydroptique earth hath drunk,5
Whither,6 as to the beds-feet, life is shrunk,[ref]With to the beds-feet, Donne shifts his metaphors from sap and balm to an image of a person in bed; the beds-feet is the foot of the bed; this may mean both that the person who is in a bed, presumably dying, has his or her world reduced (shrunk) to their bed. It may also be a reference to the way a corpse shrinks and withers, given the subsequent explicit reference to death. [/efn_note]
Dead and enterr’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;7
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,8
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.9
All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec,12
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow13
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences14
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
But I am by her death15 (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;16
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.
But I am none; nor will my sun renew.17
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run18
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,19
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.20
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- The Catholic church’s traditional order of prayers in the early church included prayers at midnight called nocturnes or vigils. The night office today is often called Matins
- The Winter solstice is the midpoint of the year, the turning of the tide from the darkest night of the year towards the renewal of light and the arrival of Spring. Donne is also writing at midnight.
- The stars are flasks; stars were thought to store energy and light from the Sun
- Squibs were both small firecrackers and malfunctioning firecrackers, whose explosive force was less than expected
- Current medical theory postulated that all life contained and generated a “general balm,” a life-giving and preserving essence, which, in winter time, like sap in a tree, sinks. Hydroptic here means excessively thirsty, as people with dropsy were thought to be.
- Typical of Donne, whither is serving multiple purposes. It can be read as both whither meaning where, to what place, and wither, to shrink or dry up. The balm has retreated to the Earth as sap does in winter.
- The Winter solstice marks the “death” of the world.
- A quintessence is literally the “fifth essence,” derived from Medieval Latin quīnta essentia. In terms of alchemy, the fifth essence is the highest element, more pure than earth, air, fire and water, the other four, and the essence of life itself and of the heavenly bodies. Yes Luke, it’s very like the Force in Star Wars.
- Donne is himself thus the quintessence even from nothingness referred to in line 6.
- A limbec (a shortened form of alembic) is a type of still used by alchemists; it is essentially two vessels joined by a tube. Love is the alchemist who transformed Donne10 am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so11With we two Donne shifts from examining himself to his relationship with his beloved.
- The reference to the two lovers having Drown’d the whole world sounds remarkably like ll. 14–20 of Donne’s “A Valediction: Of Weeping: So doth each tear
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world, by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mix’d with mine do overflow
This world; by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.
O more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
- Absences here also echoes Donne’s “A Valediction: Of Weeping”
- I read this as a reference to Ann Donne’s death.
- Contemporary science of the day suggested that even rocks and plants experienced attraction and repulsion.
- I read this as my sun referring to Ann Donne, as well as a comment on Donne’s own dark emotional state.
- The lesser sun is the solar body; now entering the sign of Capricorn, the goat.
- The she here is a problem for my reading, since it clearly refers to Lucy, and consequently both the saint, and Lucy Countess of Bedford.
- Donne ends much as he began, cycling back as the does the Sun.