A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day: Summary and Analysis

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A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day: Being The Shortest Day

'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 interred; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared 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 ruined 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 limbeck, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drowned 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 carcases.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing, the elixir grown
Were I a man, that were one,
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stone 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 ume 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.

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day : Being The Shortest Day  '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 interred; yet all these seem to laugh, Compared with me, who am their epitaph.
A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day

Summary and Analysis


      A 'nocturnal' refers to events or happenings during the night. The poem contains John Donne's thoughts and impressions on the night of St. Lucy's day. St. Lucy's day falls on the 13th of December and is said to be the coldest day of the year. St. Lucy is the goddess of winter and cold. According to some critics, Lucy was the name of the poet's patroness, the countess of Bedford. Some other critics feel that the poem was written on the death of the poet's wife Anne More in 1827. Whatever be the occasion of the poem, there is no doubt that the poem is one of deep mourning and depression.


      Stanza 1: It is St. Lucy's Day (13th of December which is sacred to the memory of St. Lucy, the goddess of winter and cold). This shortest day will be followed by the longest night of the year. St. Lucy shows her face hardly for seven hours (the day light, is seven hours long). The sun has set and now the stars (his flasks) give forth dim flickering light and not a steady beam. The whole world has lost its vitality. The thirsty earth has drunk the energy of nature and is swollen like a dropsical person. All Nature appears dead. Life seems to have shrunk into the earth like the shrunken feet of a dead man lying on the bed. However, in comparison with the poet who is miserable on account of the death of his mistress, the objects of Nature appear to be cheerful and joyful. He is like the epitaph on the tomb of Nature. His condition sums up the general decay of Nature.

      Stanza 2: The poet tells those who would love in the future to notice his condition now and compare it with the condition in the spring when life shall come back again to the objects of Nature. He is now like the dead, in a state of nothingness, but love will produce out of this nothingness a sort of quintessence. His misfortunes and his loneliness are due to the loss of his beloved. She has completely ruined his life and made it dark. The Alchemy of love will, out of this state of nothingness, give him a re-birth and a new life.

     Stanza 3: All people except him derive what is good such as life, soul, form and spirit from the first source of life (life first sprang out of a chaos). But the lover has derived all that is good out of sheer nothingness. He had been reduced to a state of the grave of nothingness. Love worked upon him and distilled in his limbeck the essence out of nothingness. Often, when his beloved was alive, both wept and shed copious tears enough to drown the whole world. Often the world was reduced to chaotic conditions when they cared for anything else but love. Similarly, a second chaotic condition came when they could not enjoy each other's company (the poet calls these two conditions two chaoses). When their souls were absent, their bodies became empty shells or just corpses.

      Stanza 4. On account of the death of his beloved, the poet has been reduced to the condition of absolute nothingness, a state of pre-creation. It would be wrong to say that his beloved is dead because she is only staying in a grave till her resurrection. The condition of the poet is now or very nothingness. He is not a man, for if he were a man, he would know that he was one. He is not an animal because even animals function and move in the cycle of cause and effect. He is neither a plant nor a stone because they love and hate. All things have one or the other quality while he has no quality. He is also not an ordinary nothing, not even a shadow for even shadow implies the existence of light and a body.

      Stanza 5. The poet's condition is that of absolute nothingness. His condition is different from ordinary nothingness which indicates the absence of something. He calls his beloved his sun. His sun will never appear again and therefore there will be no end to his nothingness (he compares his condition to that of other lovers). Other lovers are rather fortunate because the real sun has now gone to the Tropic of Capricorn to gather new energy and vitality which will be revealed in the coming summer. The poet is, of course, an extraordinary lover waiting for a new kind of renewal or re-birth: He will prepare himself for meeting his beloved who is waiting for resurrection which will take place at the end of this long night. The present hour will be regarded by him as the hour of her vigil, a period of prayer and penance before a religious festival. St. Lucy's night is the darkest midnight of the year. It is also the midnight of the day. He must now prepare himself through prayer to meet her when she is re-born at the end of the night of vigil.

Critical Analysis

      The poem A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day consists of five stanzas of nine lines each. One short line in the middle of the stanza (line number five) comes as a welcome break and relieves the monotony of the rhyme. It is also a rhetorical device to suit the structure of the poem.

      The poet's imagery is also unique. It is aimed at the reconciliation of opposites, life and death, winter and spring, first nothing and ordinary nothing. The images of stars as 'flasks' or 'light squibs' are also original. Similarly 'life shrunk' to 'beds-feet' is also quite vivid. The poet becomes 'their Epitaph' who sums up the story of death and decay. The images from medieval alchemy - quintessence, elixir and alembic show the great power of love, The 'two chaoses' refer to the condition of the universe as also the absorption of lovers, with no concern for the rest of the world.

      However, the poem is complex and difficult. It has many references to medieval medicine, alchemy and philosophy. On the other hand, it is quite original and sincere and shows the great transformation wrought by love on the poet - the evolution from a condition of death and decay to the great renewal and resurrection of the eternal spring.

The Setting:

      As the very title suggests, the atmosphere is one of cold desolation and deadness. The day is one of seven hours. The sun is exhausted and tired. The light of the stars is too dim. The earth's sap is at the lowest, while it is swollen with water and snow. Life is like a dead man's body, cold and shrunk. But life is bound to renew itself with spring-the season of sunshine and flowers.

Development of Thought:

      For the poet who has lost his wife, the whole world is bleak and shadowy. All Nature appears cold and lifeless. The phenomena of Nature correspond with the sadness of the poet. The poet feels that the sun, the stars and the earth are happier than him. He is in fact worse than a dead man. Other lovers should study his present condition and realize what disappointment in love can mean to the lover. His vitality and inspiration never come back to him in spring. He desires a re-birth or a revival, but it is of a different kind and it will come in a different manner.

Two Types of Nothingness:

      On account of the death of his beloved, Donne has been reduced to a state of the 'first nothing', meaning thereby, the condition of the world before creation. The whole universe was then in a state of chaos. Heavenly bodies were created out of quintessences, which was supposed to be the fifth essence, the other four being earth, water, air and sky. Love reduced the lover to first nothingness and then extracted quintessence from death and dark. While alive, the lovers were reduced to nothingness with tears which drowned their world. During the periods of absence, they were like dead bodies. The elixir which is similar to quintessence has revived him out of absolute nothingness. His beloved sun will bless him with revived vigor and resurrection, The first nothingness is different from ordinary nothingness which means the absence of something. The lover will be brought back to life by the miraculous power of love. Love has been responsible for a double change. First, it reduced him to a state of absolute nothingness and how, out of that nothingness, it has extracted the elixir, the source of life and energy.

The Vigil:

      The death of the beloved has reduced him to a position of the first nothingness. He has no properties, power or faculties. With the return of spring, all lovers except him would find a renewal of life. In his case, it would be different. He would be resurrected in the other world while his beloved would be similarly resurrected, and both would meet in the other world. But while living in this world, he must prepare for his resurrection through fasting and prayer. He should keep a vigil like a true devotee and thus prepare himself for meeting his beloved when both are resurrected.

Time Sequence:

      The poem covers a period of about six or seven hours, from the evening to mid-night. The poem begins with the evening when the sun is spent. Then the night gets darker till we reach the late hour. The subsequent vigil and midnight in the last stanza show the end of the duration.

      The poet's reflections during the period from the first 'Nothing' to the 'ordinary nothing' are the hours of the lover's preparation-the period of the vigil which will enable him to get resurrected simultaneously with her resurrection. This only will prove the immortality and the permanence of their true love.

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