John Donne’s “Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day” is one of the most beautiful poems in English. Below is a discussion of its language. The poem first:
‘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 interr’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;
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 ruin’d 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 limbec, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d 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.
The first person pronoun is delayed until the final line of the first stanza, where it is the subject of an relative clause, “me,” separated from “am” by the coordinating “who,” suitably divorcing the subject (present in the grammatical form of an object) from the verb of being; suitably because the whole poem is about the non-being of the speaking voice. The verb that governs “me” is “compar’d,” and it is a poem that will take the measure of the self, against all else, a poem that proceeds by the likeness of being to non-being, a metaphysical paradox. In Donne’s pride, he holds himself out as a specimen, an exemplar of an extreme. But the pride is not haughty; it detaches him from his own suffering sufficiently to dissect it, to offer it to others as a lesson in anatomy. For Donne, the self, in the first-person, is a world, containing all, but so fragile as, in this case, to have become the opposite of the world, containing all of nothing; at times, in his verse, there is nothing beyond the self but there is also nothing in the self. But the notion that each self is a world, that it can contain a complete inventory of absence or presence, is belied by the circumstance of the poem: the lover is absent, either dead or more uncertainly gone. She too was a world, and her absence is the one negation that he cannot contain or equate with himself.
Where the first-person in Donne is affirmed, given contour and weight, against the imagined presence of another—the situation of the poems being an ego pitched at an alter—here the absence of the other effects then opposite, and the absent other makes for an absent self. In which case, we might wonder how or why Donne would not notice that he speaks, that the language casts a shadow of presence that he cannot see? That, perhaps, is the poem’s transformation, its own alchemy, the limit of which is apparent in the parentheses, “(which word wrongs her),” itself a poem written elsewhere, or not at all, lost now at any rate.
Donne would have been skeptical about the claims of alchemy, though, and he is, as much as he affirms the contrary, also self-conscious in his skepticism of whether poetry can change the world, whether it can yield the transformation that its arguments, similes, and metaphors would. In this poem, the metaphors of alchemy are set against the alchemy of metaphors: Donne asks both that something be made of nothing by language and that nothing to be made of something by language, but both are articles of faith. Of course there is an “alter,” in this poem, a second-person against whom the voice is set, and which gives substance to the poem and the speaker both: those who will be lovers at the next spring. The poem addresses this plural “you,” this “you” that is all that he is not, three times, once in the second and twice in the final stanza, and it is worth noting how different the invocations are. In the second stanza, he purports to hold himself forth as a sort of memento mori for them; it is just enough to place the poet in the crowds of the city, in the midst of life that is not his, in worlds he cannot inhabit; it makes his nothingness a form of alienation as well as an erasure; it places the poet so that the self-dramatization is on a stage.
He needs to put his negation on display, needs for it to be recognized , for it to be all that it is not. It is easy to imagine that he wanders the streets of London, and the thought of Donne-as-Flaneur, silently meditating the poem as he walks, eliciting glances through his own fascination of the cloaked figures who might soon be lovers, is not preposterous. That first address to the implied student-voyeurs is also the only future tense in the poem, so relentlessly, grindingly, is this a poem set in the “now” of the second line and the “this hour” and second “this” of the penultimate line—that mirrored grounding in a present tense a part of the poem’s circular structure. The future is inaccessible to the speaker; it is itself another world, the “next world” of the resurrection, the “next spring”; the poem intimates God’s judgment, and his own damnation not in hell, but in endless purgatory. Donne’s current situation fits the poem’s modest scheme of mythical and religious history, the lovers drowned the whole world, flooding it as punishment for its sins, flooding also one another for the punishment of their sins, capable of redeeming creation but also undoing it as they could alternately become two “chaoses”; the allusions are maybe also to Classical myths of chaos and the flood. At any rate, Donne never lets “world” separate from earthliness: the resurrection of spring is pagan, though Christ’s resurrection can be accommodated without too much discomfort, the revival of the horoscope and lusty Capricorn, and even the floods and chaoses are ultimately of the same material stuff as their bodies, which, absent of one another’s souls, become two carcasses.
The Platonism of Donne is recognized in that world “souls” but is unpursued here; perhaps it resides in the poem to which Donne in his parentheses alludes. “Death” wrongs her because her soul endures. In general, the poem is stubbornly materialist, without transcendence. Even where the Platonism appears most forcefully it is with surprising understatement: “nor will my sun renew.” His beloved is the greater to the material universe’s “lesser sun,” but it is nonetheless more fragile than it, perhaps lesser in a sense, in having been extinguished, as is Donne’s Platonism in the poetry more generally. “Nor will my sun renew” is perhaps the most poignant line of the poem, said without bitterness towards the future lovers, and with a self-pity that is meeker with resignation than boastful, heroic affirmations of self-negation. Though, to say that the poem is heroic and boastful does belies its helplessness: the cadences of the fourth stanza, from “were I a man” to “all, all some properties invest” is frenzied, desperate, the first-person pronoun in those lines, far from parrying and contesting with circumstances, is nearly slipping from Donne’s grasp; he is a bit like Richard II at that moment, his vulnerability most apparent in the fall to “And love,” where the line-break acts like a catch of the poet’s throat (as it does elsewhere):plants and stones detest and love on the Renaissance theory of growth, but the word “love” escapes that context as he utters it, reminds him instead of his own great passion, of which he is still capable. It is a reminder that Donne, as he writes these lines, perhaps seeks to escape his existence, flees from the “I,” rather than towards it.
Then, in the final two lines of the stanza, he recovers himself again: “As shadows, a light and body must be here.” That line, though it presents itself with the calm of the self-evident, is peculiar to consider: were he a nothing that is a shadow, it would, as he says, imply a body and source of light. The light is absent, since it is St. Lucy’s and the evening has come early and the night will last long; the body is absent because she, his love, is gone. An ordinary shadow is a lover, then, following a beloved, made absent by his slavishness by their presence; he can be no such thing. But his love is also his sun, and so the absence of light is double: the daylight from the celestial body, but also the light from the body that she was. “But I am none” at the start of the final stanza looks back to say, “but I am none of these: shadow, ordinary nothing, nor anything else I have listed.” But it also stands alone, suggesting not just “I am nothing,” and not exactly “I am no one,” but instead “I am the absence of one,” not incomplete but naught. And yet not “I am naught,” but “I am none”: a negation of any one affirmative that could be supposed. It’s after this astonishing statement that we have the brief “nor will my sun renew,” which reaches back to the second stanza, to those who will be lovers at the next spring: he has them in his mind still; his audience has never lost his gaze, nor perhaps, at least in his mind, he theirs.
I used to hear the line “Enjoy your summer all” as sardonic. It is bitter and yes, cutting, but now I hear it as possessing also a dignity of a farewell as he turns away from his audience; it has a decorous finality. The final four lines are a gathering up and moving on and away. They are an end to the grieving and mourning. The “she” is the lesser sun, and he, alive when the spring returns, will need to prepare himself for its return. The hortative “let me” asks for a release, but it is unclear whether he seeks a release from his own feelings or from his own performance; he is summoning strength from within, but also asking for relief from without. “Let me call | This hour her vigil, and her eve”: but what would stop him from doing so? He seems to be asking to be allowed to see the world as others see it, though perhaps by asking to call the hour her vigil, he is asking permission to allowed the extravagance to say the absent sun is standing in vigil to mourn for his loss.
There is also, I think, some slippage in the pronoun “her,” where it refers primarily to the “lesser sun,” but also perhaps to the greater sun, his love. It might be, for instance, that the “her” of “her vigil, and her eve” is his lover: let me say the darkness of this night belongs to her whom I lost, rather than to the absent son. That “her” might even emerge earlier: “let me prepare towards her” could be the spring sun, but also the lover. He prepares towards her since they will meet again in another world that is not the next spring. She will not renew, but he will die too, eventually. The double “this” of the penultimate line stakes, as I said, the poem to a place in time, and returns Donne to the feel of time itself, where the poem opened. When we hear “Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight” here not only does it complete the cyclical return to the first line–an orbit, whether solar or earthly, around the absent lover—but it resounds with what is unstated: it is his deep midnight too. It feels somewhat like the repetition of “Brutus is an honorable man.” It’s not that it’s not their midnight, but there is more to say, as we now know. The last word is “is.” Commensurate with “’tis” but crucially different: the verb alone, the verb “to be,” a final affirmation of existence, albeit of darkness, in a poem of negatives and negation.