A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day by John Donne

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Donne intertwines the sacred and profane in this poem. At once readers have the physical death and subsequent mourning, and the spiritual celebration and rebirth of the year. Readers can sense Donne pondering the paradox of these as simultaneous events, forcing them to ask how they could coexist.

Though few of Donne’s Songs and Sonnets are datable with any precision, ample evidence supports the claim that Donne contrived “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day” after the death of his wife, Ann, in 1617. Some scholars find such biographical implications to be distractions and prey to fallacious interpretative logic. Others attempt to blend historical material into various interpretative stances. It is certainly hard to deny the power of the poem if one imagines the poet’s personal grief. It is even more fitting when one considers that Ann died after an ill-advised twelfth childbirth. It has been suggested that her sacrifice in marital fruition was similar to Saint Lucy’s martyrdom—both died unswerving in their manifest faith.

Interpretation of this poem often takes one of two positions: that the poem is an anguished expression of grief and ends in despair, or that it encourages faith in restoration and ends in hope. Either camp must clarify how one should interpret the nulls, zeroes, absences, and no-things that pervade the work. One interpretation involves accepting a sexual representation of the word “thing” as standing for the penis, apparently a common slang usage in Donne’s time. This approach presents readers with the implication of emasculation or, in a bawdier sense, a lack of erection: The speaker is reduced to “no thing.” Some critics reject such physical punning as inconsistent with the decorum necessitated by the mourning expressed in the poem; others find the correlation between sex and death, consistent with Freudian concepts, to be psychologically appealing.

Further irony may be found in the contrast between the lack of light emphasized in the long-night, short-day positioning,...

(The entire section is 515 words.)