Donne’s A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day

Saint Lucy’s day is December 13. This was, in the Julian calendar, the Winter solstice and consequently the shortest day of the year (and thus the darkest). 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, hence the poem deals with 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, and 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 him he 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 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, the attempt, at its highest level, to transform a base metal like lead to gold.

I have modernized the spelling.

In this YouTube video you can hear Sir Richard Burton, probably the best reader of Donne I’ve every hard, read A Nocturne Upon St. Lucy’s Day.

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

John Donne A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day

1)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
’Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,2)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 with Spring. Donne is also writing at midnight.
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,
The Sun is spent, and now his flasks3)The stars are flasks; they were thought to store energy and light from the Sun
Send forth light squibs,4)Squibs were both small firecrackers and malfunctioning firecrackers, whose explosive force was less than expected no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk:
The general balm th’ hydroptique earth hath drunk,5)Current medical theory postulated that all life contained and generated a “general balm,” a life-giving and preserving essence, which, in wintertime, like sap in a tree, sinks. Hydroptic here means excessively thirsty, as people with dropsy were thought to be.
Whither,6)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. as to the beds-feet, life is shrunk,7)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 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.  
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;8)The Winter solstice marks the “death” of the world.
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,9)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.
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.10)Donne is himself thus the quintessence even from nothingness referred to in line 6.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec,11)A limbec (a shortened form of alembic) is a type of still used by alchemists; it is essnetially two vessels joined by a tube. Love is the alchemist who transformed Donne am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so12)With we two Donne shifts from examining himself to his relationship with is beloved.
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow13)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,

To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences14)Absences here also echoes Donne’s “A Valediction: Of Weeping”
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death15)I read this as a reference to Ann Donne’s 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;16)Contemporary science of the day suggested that even rocks and plants experienced attraction and repulsion.
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)I read this as my sun referring to Ann Donne, as well as a comment on Donne’s own dark emotional state.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run18)The lesser sun is the solar body; now entering the sign of Capricorn, the goat.
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,19)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.
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)And Donne ends much as he began, cycling back as the does the Sun.

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She plays o' the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, hath all the good gifts of nature, knows a hawk from a handsaw, and can see a church by daylight. The rest is subject to fancy.