A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

by John Donne

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Themes and Meanings

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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, and the fact that celebrations of Saint Lucy often involved emphasis on light and vision. The name “Lucy” is itself cognate with the Latin lux. Much of the poem plays off this loss of light, Donne’s loss of his wife as loss of the sun (or son). Such verbal punning is regularly found in Donne’s writing, and his sermons often focused on the emanations and explications of key scriptural words.

Beyond these themes is the fact—the existence—of the poem itself. It is something produced from a death, and in several instances the poem calls attention to itself. Further, the speaker enjoins the reader to “study me then,” which must refer as much to the study of the poem as to the study of the speaker. Since the speaker has indicated that he has become the couple’s epitaph, reading the poem is tantamount to reading or studying the speaker. To read the poem is thus both to see the folly of temporal love and to see the restoration that is possible if one has sufficient eternal faith (in the beloved, in God, and perhaps in the poem).

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