The Poets

December 13, 2010

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

I read a poem during the summer that was beautiful: A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day. It was written by the English poet John Donne- a poet who I’ve heard of even before I had any interest in poetry.

The language of the poem was very intense- it spoke to me so deeply, so ‘metaphysically’, that I knew I had to share it in a post. Of course, I had to better understand the context within which it emerged before I could do so.


Saint Lucy's Day, initially thought to be the shortest day of the year, is a day that celebrates the courageous sacrifice and martyrdom of a young woman by the hands of the Romans.

Story has it that, after having given herself completely over to God, when she refused to be given in marriage she was persecuted and threatened with prostitution. When these threats failed the Romans ceased her in order that they might throw her in a brothel- however, for a divine reason, they couldn’t move her. So, instead of condemning her to prostitution, they built a hearth around her, but the young lady’s body resisted even the flames. Finally, a Roman soldier took a sword and ran it through her throat.


A nocturne usually refers to music- particularly ‘night music’ or something akin to lullabies. At first glance Donne seems to dedicate this poem to the memory of our martyr, but there are those that believe the poem speaks cryptically about his deceased wife who died at the terribly young age of 33 (childbirth).

Now if this is so, and clearly it may be, there may be aspects of the poem whose cryptic significance is beyond our scope, and symbols that are designed to portray his wife rather than our saint above.

Notwithstanding, even if this is the case, it doesn't do anything to diminish the artistic beauty of the poet's language. See for yourself ...


A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's 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 interr'd ; 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 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.

Side Notes

Lucy’s name, which ultimately derives from the Latin word for light (or lux) is said to signify a time when light manifests where darkness is its deepest- symbols I dearly adore.

There’s a tradition where a candle-wreath is worn on one’s head- this is supposed to signify the flames that couldn’t consume the flesh of the young martyr.

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As of April 9th, 2010