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.

References   [ + ]

Donne’s Meditation XVII

John Donne Meditation XVII from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)1

The Devotions were written, for the most part, in December of 1623 when Donne was recovering from (and possibly still suffering from) a serious illness that began during the previous November. At the time, many in London were suffering and died from a mysterious illness that included high fevers and “spots” (possibly typhus). When he began writing the Devotions, Donne had been Dean of St. Paul’s for two years. The Devotions are a personal exploration of his sickness and recovery in the context of Christian humanism. The complete (and rarely used) title is Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and severall steps in my Sicknes.

The Devotions consist of 23 sequentially numbered sections, each of which opens with a “meditation” in which Donne explores an aspect of his illness, followed by an “expostulation” containing his reaction to his illness, much of it in the form of direct address to God, and concludes with a prayer. Donne’s illness was serious; he had little or no expectation of survival. The direct cause of his desire to write was his illness; he wrote while he was still quite ill. The Devotions are an example of a Protestant genre of the time in which the details of daily life were examined in a religious and spiritual context.

The work was registered at the Stationer’s Office in January of 1624 and published later that year, one of a handful of works published during Donne’s lifetime.

This post is concerned entirely with the Meditation portion of XVII, which follows.

XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris
Now this bell, tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.2

Perchance, he for whom this bell tolls3 may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member.4 And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated5 into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit6 (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation7, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that this occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him9 as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.


1 The spelling here has been modernized, and I’ve added paragraph breaks. The text is based on the edition by John Sparrow. Cambridge University Press, 1923: 96–98.

2 This is Donne’s own translation.

3 The bell is simultaneously the passing bell that tolls once for each year of a deceased person’s life, and the bell that rings to call the congregation to service, and the bell that rang (until silenced by the dissolution of the monasteries and religious orders under Henry VIII) to call to prayers during the day.

4 The Christian church is the head of all people, as well as a body composed of all members of that church (i.e. all Christians).

5Translated, from Latin trānslātus means to “carry across,” or transfer, both from one language to another or one place or another. In a Christian or spiritual context Donne alludes to the idea that souls are translated from one level or sphere to another. By this means, Donne constructs an elaborate metaphor wherein he is a single member of the Christian body, one volume or book that is translated by God.

6 That is controversy in the form of a law suit.

7 For Donne’s “estimation,” today we would say self-esteem.

8 Main here means “mainland.”

9 “Defray him,” or rather defray or cover his expenses.

A Meditation on Donne’s Meditation XVII

When Donne wrote this meditation, he was deeply concerned about his own mortality. He had lost his beloved wife Anne More Donne. They had lost children to early death. London was in the throes of a mysterious disease sometimes called “spotted fever,” marked by a rash and prolonged fevers, and often, death.

The central theme moves quickly from contemplation of his own mortality, to the idea that he is merely a part of the greater Christian body, the Christian “volume,” one leaf out of many.

There are two touchstones from this meditation that have been absorbed into general consciousness (thanks in no small part to Heminway’s novel For Whom The Bell Tolls:

No man is an island, entire of itself; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Aside from the Christian concept of memento mori, embodied in the idea that the bell tolling another’s death is a reminder of our own inevitable death, these passages have always been a reminder to me that we are all part of humanity. We are, as Donne put it earlier, leaves in the same volume. We are all “involved” in mankind, part of a single body; we are not islands, we are connected to each other. Thus, any man’s death, (or woman’s; I do think Donne very much included women in his man/mankind) diminishes all of us; we are made less by it.

Ultimately, for me, this meditation reminds me that we are all part of something larger, and by emphasizing our connection to each other, we are emphasizing our connections to something larger than our separate selves.