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Sir Patrick Stewart Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets

This is a link list of Sir Patrick Stewart’s readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets on Instagram and Twitter. The readings/performances are identical.

Sonnet Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 1 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 2 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 3 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 4 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 5 Skipped Skipped
Sonnet 6 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 7 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 8 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 9 Skipped Skipped
Sonnet 10 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 11 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 12 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 13 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 14 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 15 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 16 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 17 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 18 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 19 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 20 Skipped Twitter
Sonnet 21 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 22 Skipped Twitter
Sonnet 23 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 24 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 25 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 26 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 27 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 28 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 29 Instagram

Retake

Twitter

Retake

Sonnet 30 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 31 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 32 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 33 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 34 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 35 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 36 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 37 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 38 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 39 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 40 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 41 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 42 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 43 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 44 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 45 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 46 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 47 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 49 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 50 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 51 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 52 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 53 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 54 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 55 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 56 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 57 Instagram (Guest: Jonathan Frakes) Twitter Guest: Jonathan Frakes
Sonnet 58 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 59 Skipped Skipped
Sonnet 60 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 61 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 62 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 63 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 64 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 65 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 66 Skipped Skipped
Sonnet 67 Skipped Skipped
Sonnet 68 Skipped Skipped
Sonnet 69 Skipped Skipped
Sonnet 70 Skipped Skipped
Sonnet 71 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 72 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 73 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 74 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 75 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 76 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 77 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 78 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 79 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 80 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 81
(Guest: Ian McKellen)
Instagram Twitter (Guest: Ian McKellen)
Sonnet 82 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 83 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 84 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 85 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 86 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 87 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 88 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 89 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 90

In the same video as Sonnet 89, directly after Sonnet 89.

Instagram Twitter Follows immediately after 89
Sonnet 91 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 92 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 93 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 94 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 95 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 96 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 97 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 98 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 99 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 100 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 101 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 102 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 103 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 104 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 105 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 106 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 107 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 108 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 109 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 110 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 111 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 112 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 113 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 114 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 115 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 116 Instagram Twitter and again
Sonnet 117 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 118 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 119 Instagram Twitter
`Sonnet 120 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 121 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 122 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 123 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 124 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 125 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 126 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 127 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 128 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 129 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 130 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 131

“I am skipping 131 because I don’t like it.” — Patrick Stewart

Sonnet 132 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 133

Skipped Sonnets 133, 134, 135, 136
“Sonnets 133, 134, 135, 136 I just cannot handle. They are so complex with word meanings changing and plays on words. I’ve struggled and struggled and failed to make sense of them. So I’m not going to pretend that I do make sense of them. I’m just going to leave them unsaid.” —Patrick Stewart

Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 134 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 135 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 136 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 137 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 138 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 139 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 140 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 141 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 142 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 143 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 144 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 145 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 146 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 147 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 148 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 149 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 150 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 151 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 152 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 153 Instagram Twitter
Sonnet 154 Instagram Twitter

Shakespeare Sonnet #1

 

1609 quarto Image: The British Library

1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory;
But thou, contracted1)Contracted as in a marriage contract; betrothed. OED contract as a verb: “To enter into an agreement or contract.” Also contracted adj. “Drawn into smaller compass; narrowed, shortened, shrunken, etc.” to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content2)Content see OED content n2 1a “Satisfaction, pleasure; a contented condition” but also OED content n1 “That which is contained in anything.”,
And, tender3)Tender ; a tender is “One who tends, or waits upon, another; an attendant, nurse, ministrant” (s.v. OED tender n1). churl, mak’st waste in niggarding4)Niggarding is Shakespeare’s coinage, derived from the Scandinavian loan-word niggard, a miser. All three of the OED’s entries for niggard, niggardly, niggarding use context quotations from Shakespeare, including this line for niggarding,which is the only example for a word marked “rare.”:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

This sonnet is generally considered part of the sequence from 1–17 that appear to urge a young man to produce an heir. It has the typical Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme; ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and the three quatrains and a couplet structure, neither of which were actually invented by Shakespeare, though he employs both with exquisite skill.

The first line “from fairest creatures we desire increase” is a reference to reproduction. The poet refers to wanting beauty to reproduce and bear children and thereby gain immortality. At the same time, given Shakespeare’s fondness for playing havoc with word order, “we desire increase” can also mean “our desire increases.”

“But as the riper should by time decease” continues the idea of a parent and offspring from the first two lines. despite the nature of life, that with age, “the riper” will because of time, “decease,” or die. Tender serves double-duty; both as soft or delicate because of youth, and as a noun; an attendant. There is in addition, given the legal context of any discussion of an heir, the meaning of tender (OED tender n2) “a formal offer.”

In the fourth line the anonymous creature becomes “he”by virtue of the repeated “his” and the concept of an heir enters the poem. This line is the pivot on which those readers who think that Shakespeare was addressing a specific aristocratic male and urging reproduction (and the creation of an heir) turns.

Contracted in line 5 means both “someone who has agreed to a contract” or betrothed, and possibly also “reduced in size.” He is married to himself; his compass has been reduced to his own person. He is thus self-consuming, and “making a famine where abundance lies” by ignoring other potential suitors, other “contracts.”

With the start of the third stanza the poet continues the flower metaphor begun with the reference to the rose in line 2, describing the youth as the “only herald to the gaudy spring.” This line always makes me think of Chaucer’s description of the Squire in the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, and to the closely related Spring images of a “young and lusty bachelor” in the May calendar images of books of hours.

In line 11 “Within thine own bud buriest thy content” Shakespeare returns to the rose metaphor of the second line. Bud is ostensibly self-explanatory in the context of the rose; an unopened immature blossom. The youth is burying his own content, his own happiness, within his own bud. By not reproducing he buries (as if hidden in a grave) his own future happiness. Note that content means not only “contentment” or happiness but content, something contained. The youth “contains” the potential for progeny, for fatherhood, and, the poet argues fatherhood would make him (and presumably the world) feel content.

I can’t help but see bud in the context of producing progeny as a phallic reference. Particularly given this couplet:

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:

He buries his happiness within his own bud, and “mak’st waste in niggarding.” By not fathering progeny, he is wasting his potential by keeping his content to himself.

The final couplet in this sonnet is a summary argument for the preceding stanzas:

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

That is, pity the world, who would lose his beauty, and reproduce, or “eat” the world’s due by not reproducing, and thus being swallowed by the grave, the grave foreshadowed by the reference to “bury” in line 11. In this closing couplet the motifs built around the theme of eating and of death join.

References   [ + ]

Patrick Stewart Reads Shakespeare’s Sonnets

On March 22 2020, Sir Patrick Stewart posted on Instagram a video of himself reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119 “Let not marriage . . ..” The reception was so enthusiastic that on March 23 Stewart posted again:

I was delighted by the response to my posting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. It has led me to undertake what follows. When I was a child in the 1940s, my mother would cut up slices of fruit for me (there wasn’t much) and as she put it in front of me she would say: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” How about, “A sonnet a day keeps the doctor away”? So…here we go: Sonnet 1.

Stewart has thus far proceeded to post a sonnet a day; as I write this on March 26, Stewart has posted sonnet 4 “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend . . . ”.

As many have noted since the lock-downs and self-isolation of COVID-19 in 2020, Shakespeare’s life was marked by various incursions of the plague. Shakespeare was christened on April 26, 1564, at the Stratford Parish church; by July of that year the town, like most of England, was ravaged by bubonic plague. Waves of plague affected England all of Shakespeare’s life, resulting in multiple closures of the London theaters, in an effort to practice what we are calling “distancing.” The theaters were closed in February 1564, the year Shakespeare was born, in 1593, in 1603–1604 the theaters closed for 11 months, again in July of 1606 (when Shakespeare was occupied with King Lear), and in 1608.1)Regarding the history of King Lear’s composition and iniital performances, see the excellent 1606: A Year of Lear by James Shapiro.

The summer of 1592 is almost certainly when Shakespeare wrote his long poem Venus and Adonis, published in 1593 when theaters were still closed because of the plague. That Shakespeare was acutely aware of the plague is clear from this passage of Venus and Adonis:

“Long may they kiss each other for this cure.
O never let their crimson liveries wear,
And as they last, their verdour still endure,
To drive infection from the dangerous year,
   That the star-gazers, having writ on death,
   May say the plague is banished by thy breath” (Venus and Adonis ll. 505–10)

Stephen Greenblatt theorizes that the sonnets were largely written during the summer of 1592, when the theaters had been closed first because of concerns regarding social unrest, and later, in 1593, because of plague. It is thus particularly appropriate, perhaps, to turn to Shakespeare’s sonnets for consolation during 2020, the year of the Coronavirus, COVID-19.

I have for several years been working my own way through Shakespeare’s sonnets, making notes and annotating them as I read. This began as part of my preparation for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, continued as an aide to teaching, and then simply became an enjoyable meditative habit.

I thought to take Sir Patrick Stewart’s lead, and re-read and post about each of Shakespeare’s sonnets as Stewart read them. I am by no means a Shakespearean scholar, though I have studied with several, and taught Shakespeare under some of their supervision and mentoring. I’m merely presenting my own idiosyncratic readings as I attempt to stave off depression and homesickness, not presenting a definitive reading.  I do point to a number of resources related to Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as provide a somewhat truncated introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets.

To begin: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1.

References   [ + ]

Ich Am From Irelande

Icham1)Ich am “I am” of Irlaunde
And of the holy londe
Of Irlande.
Gode sire, preye ich the2)preye ich the “I pray thee”,
For of saynte charite
Come ant daunce wyt me3)ant “and” wyt “with”
In Ireland.

This is one of those early poems that’s particularly dear to my heart; there’s an almost infectious joy in the invitation to “Come and dance.” This Middle English lyric is by one of my very favorite poets, Anonymous. She’s quite prolific, and exceedingly long-lived.4)In all seriousness, I have no real reason to assert that the speaker or the poet is female, other than wishful thinking. I note that assertions like this one “the famous lyric, whose speaker is clearly female” have nothing to support them, either. “Ich am of Ireland,” or “I am of Ireland” is from about 1400, so roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer. This short lyric is preserved in a single manuscript, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson D.913 f. 1v.

Here’s the lyric in Modern English:

I am of Ireland
And of the holy land
Of Ireland.
Good sir, I pray you,
For holy charity
Come and dance with me
In Ireland.

“Ich am of Ireland” is one of several rather hastily scrawled lyrics on a single fragment of parchment. It’s probably a carol, a ring-dance, where one dancer invites another to join him or her in the center of the ring, or “Ireland.” It is not outside the realm of possibility that this carol, or a version of it, is very old indeed.

Line 5, “For of saynte charite” or “for of holy charity” doesn’t mean what it looks like. Charity, perhaps more familiar in the Latin form, caritas, had a different meaning in the tenth through seventeenth centuries than it has today. In Middle English, charity doesn’t generally mean giving to others, rather, it means love; here, it means Christian love. Saynte means “holy” here.

Yeats adopted “Ich am of Irelaunde” for his poem “XX — I Am of Ireland” in his collection of poems Words for Music Perhaps, first published in 1933.

References   [ + ]

How to Talk About Poetry

Let’s be honest. Reading poetry, in the greater scheme of things, is just this side of engaging in an obscenity. Poetry is meant to be spoken or sung or chanted; it’s meant to be heard and shared, it’s not meant to be a sullen and solitary vice. Poems live when they are shared; they should be spoken and heard and passed on and celebrated. Fortunately, anyone can read and enjoy and comment appreciatively and intelligently about poetry. You don’t have to be some sort of creative writer, or a poet, or an artist, or sensitive, or anything, beyond a thoughtful reader.

I thought I hated poetry for much of my life; it wasn’t until I read this poem that I realized I liked some poems. I thought I hated poetry because of the way poetry was presented to me in school, where teachers spent hours trying to explain meter and scansion (it’s not that big a deal, and you can read and like poetry just fine without knowing anything about meter or rhyme schemes). If you like music with lyrics, if you like songs, then you like poetry.

Moreover, no matter what your English lit teacher told you—poetry has a multiplicity of possible readings. There are lots and lots of ways for people to read the same poem; they’re all valid, as long as readers can tie their response to the poem. Even “I don’t really like this poem because it brings up a really unpleasant memory” is a valid response for that person at that time to that poem. Moreover, lived experience can change the way we read a poem, or the ways it makes us feel. We aren’t static and unchanging; neither is poetry.

What then do you talk about with respect to a poem? To start, you can talk about what you notice about it. Is there a particular line or section that draws your attention? Is there something that reminds you of something in your life, or perhaps something else you’ve seen or read? Are there any patterns, or sounds, or words, or imagery, that you find interesting or that attract your notice? Is there something that you just simply like about the poem (or dislike)?

Poetry by its nature is compact. A poem is language is compressed, without excess words. That means it’s particularly fun to look for patterns that shine through the compact shape of a poem. Patterns of image, and metaphor, of sound, and rhythm—and perhaps even more interesting, to look for places where the poet sets up a pattern, and then changes, or departs, or alters that pattern.

If you want something a little more formal, here’s a getting started guide to writing about poetry in academic terms. Me, I’d rather just talk about why I love a particular poem, and how it works, including, how it works on me.

Western Wind

Western wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Anonymous; British Library Royal Appendix 58 c. Early Sixteenth Century

“Western Wind” (or “Westron Wyde” as the ms. has it) is an anonymous lyric from the early 16th century (c. 1530). It’s extant in a single manuscript that appears to have been a commonplace book used by several English court musicians associated with the royal court and were collecting musical pieces for lute. As Julia Craig-McFeely notes  British Library Royal Appendix 58 (RA58) is actually

two music manuscripts that became bound together as the single source, Royal Appendix 58, one inserted inside the other some considerable time after their respective compilations—possibly at the time they became part of the Royal collection in the British Museum. The outer portions of RA58, the part of the MS containing the lute music, was written throughout by the same scribe, though it is difficult to see this as the tablature section has little text with which to compare the other music, and the manuscript is suffering badly from the effects of fading. This section of the MS isa collection of tenor voice parts, and the original parchment cover was marked ‘Tenor’ by its owner. The inserted book was a collection of medius and contratenor parts, indicated by its scribe writing ‘medius’ at the top of the first page.

The general consensus regarding the RA 58 is that it’s from about 1530; the language of the poem could easily be earlier, and I suspect (but can not prove) that it’s perhaps c. 1400. There is music presented in RA58 with the text, but interpreting what the notation means is a bit difficult. Musicians and composers have come up with different melodies.

“Western Wind” is one of the first poems that grabbed my attention in that This Is Important way when I was teenager reading my father’s old copy of the Quiller-Couch edition of The Oxford Book of English Poetry. The poem seemed so very simple, a tiny four-line love-lyric (a particularly English love-lyric, given its reference to rain). It captures the feeling of love-in-absence, the emotional state of the lover longing for the presence of the beloved, the comforts of home and a familiar and shared bed.

I like the way the poem uses repetition in the second line, drawing our attention to the phrase “The small rain down can rain” — notice the way the line catches our ear and eye with the repetition of “rain,” as both verb and noun, and the way the meter emphasizes the words as if they were themselves falling rain. “The small rain” is a particularly English phrase as well, referring both to the constant steady fall of micro drops that are almost more like mist than rain, and to “a little rain,” where “small” refers to quantity rather than the size of the drops.

The phrase “the small rain” is one with an ancient history. Here’s the entry from the OED for the phrase. You’ll notice that there’s an archaic letter, the eth (ð = th sound) no longer used in English.

Small rain III. 10. a. Composed of fine or minute particles, drops, etc. In later use chiefly of rain.

c897 K. AELFRED Gregory’s Past. C. lvii. 437 Swiðe lytle beoð ða dropan ðaes smalan renes, ac hi wyrceað ðeah swiðe micel flod. c1000 Sax. Leechd.

1649 WINTHROP New Eng. (1853) I. 209 The Rebecka,..two days before, was frozen twenty miles up the river; but a small rain falling set her free.

1676 WOOD Jrnl. in Acc. Sev. Late Voy. I. (1694) 177 Thick Fogs with small Rain. 1727 A. HAMILTON New Acc. E. Indies I. xxii. 262 A small Rain happened to fall that damped my Powder. 1823 SCOTT Quentin D. i, Heaven, who works by the tempest as well as by the soft small rain (OED small, a. and n.2 III.10.a).

The same phrase is used in the King James 1611 Bible, in Deuteronomy 32:2:

My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass

The date of the King James translation is too late to have directly influenced “Western Wind,” but it does show the use of the phrase—and it’s not impossible that it was influenced by the lyric.

In English custom and poetry the western wind is the wind of spring; see for instance Robert Herrick’s short lyric, “To the Western Wind,” which also treats the west wind as a gentle wind that brings rain. John Masefield does something similar in his “The West Wind.” The spring opening of Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales summons the west wind by name, in his invocation of Zephyru, the Greek god associated with the west wind and spring. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ode to the West Wind” has a similar association between the western wind and rain—but in Shelley’s poem the wind is associated with autumn, and Italy.

In this very English poem, notice that the narrater—who could be a woman or a man, we don’t know—says, somewhat urgently, or perhaps plaintively, “when” will the small rain come? It reminds me very much of the moment when the barometric pressure changes, just before the rain comes, and it’s suggestive of the speaker’s own state of mind.

A melody with the same “Western Wind” title was used by a number of sixteenth century English composers (most notably Thomas Tallis, Richard Taverner and Christopher Tye) as the cantus firmus in the Mass, under the less than surprising title of the Western Wind Mass, but it isn’t clear that the tune used by the masses is the same one recorded in British Library Royal Appendix 58 c; in fact it seems rather unlikely. It’s also not clear that the tune used by the composers wasn’t simply another tune for our lyric.  Either way, the various masses are all quite lovely, whether or not directly related to the lyric.

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. Western Wind Masses (Taverner—Tye—Shepard)
iTunes | Amazon

The Tallis Scholars & Peter Phillips. The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Church Music – Volume One
iTunes | Amazon

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

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 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 and the arrival of 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 winter time, 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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