“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day” is characteristic of John Donne’s art: It is compressed verse full of tightly woven images and concepts, it is rapid, and its metrics and shape are atypical of traditional verse. The rhythmic diversity suggests speech and debate. The act of reading the poem is rather like that of deciphering a cryptogram or solving a puzzle while riding over a bumpy road. In sum, it is difficult to imagine anyone but Donne writing this poem.
It begins with a time reference, namely to the shortest day of the year—the winter solstice (December 12 in the Julian calendar)—and more specifically to the dying moments of the year. The speaker contemplates this day while (fictionally) writing the poem on the previous evening. He deploys this strategy as a way to explain by comparison that his condition is more dire than is the death of the earthly year: “yet all these seem to laugh/ Compar’d with me.” The reader is left to wonder what has brought him to this calamitous, exaggerated grief.
In the second stanza, the speaker enjoins the readers (who are lovers, or will be lovers in the next spring) to study him in order to learn how love transformed him. In this arrangement, love is a personified being who miraculously produces a restorative substance (“quintessence,” and later “elixir”) from the speaker’s destruction. Thus the lovers are offered a cautionary story of the transitory nature of humankind, but a...
(The entire section is 561 words.)