A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

by John Donne

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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

“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 story that also hints at potential good as a result.

The third stanza continues the regenerative concept by contrasting love’s treatment of him with how good is normally produced. He again emphasizes that he has been reduced to nothing. In the middle of the stanza the subject shifts. The speaker considers how he and an implied lover have produced cataclysmic effects: floods, chaos, and zombies, or carcasses without souls. The effects of their love have been great, superhuman if not supernatural, suggesting a power consistent with that which might affect time.

The occasion for the grief expressed in the poem is presented at the outset of the fourth stanza. Here readers learn that the speaker’s lover has died. Her death has resulted in his return to a primordial nothingness, and it troubles him that he loses his identity in the process. He realizes that her death has transformed him into a being that is no longer easily classified.

He begins the last stanza by arguing that he is none of the possibilities listed in the previous stanza—man, beast, or ordinary body. He invites the lovers to enjoy their time together, including an implied reference to sexual activity (“the Goat is run/ To fetch new lust”). While they are thus occupied, he asks to be allowed to offer devotion to his dead as both tribute and means to a kind of resurrection. The poem then ends with the recurrent image of the death of the year.

“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day” is said by many critics to be one of Donne’s most complex poems. Some believe that Donne is too obscure most of the time and conclude that this poem in particular is impenetrable. Another objection that has been voiced concerns the extreme expression of grief, especially in the first stanza, with some critics considering it overblown bombast.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day” consists of five nine-line stanzas following the unusual rhyme pattern abbacccdd over a total of forty-five lines. The rhymed units cohere to form an initial discursive block of four lines, followed by a recursive or appositive group of three lines, followed by a concluding couplet. This pattern encourages a narrowing or a distilling of thought. It also reflects some of the characteristics of both the rime royal and Spenserian stanzaic forms, most notably in the sense of completion caused by the comparatively longer last line.

The metering and rhythm are irregular, somewhat echoing patterns of speech. In general, the lines of each stanza initially tend to favor a tetrameter length (in mixed iambic and anapestic feet), leading up to the stanza’s iambic trimeter fifth line. This pattern produces a necessary pause and a heightened emphasis on that fifth line. The halting cadences of the sixth through eighth lines lead to a greater balance in the stanzas’ concluding pentameter lines. Donne adds to this scheme an inventive use of the caesura to create more frequent pauses and shifting emphases. Though Donne’s habit of engaging in metric irregularity occasioned Ben Jonson’s remark that Donne “should be hung for not keeping accent” (meter), in this poem the effect is consistent with the wracking grief the persona expresses throughout his song.

Most compelling as evidence of Donne’s artistic control is the poem’s symmetrical structure. The poem offers a precise midpoint, the middle of the middle line of the middle stanza (line 22 in stanza 3). This line consists of four syncopated feet. The second foot is broken. This is the only line in all the stanzas that engages an end-stop caesura in the middle of a line—in this case, a period—and the beginning of a new sentence after that second foot. This occurs immediately after the word “nothing,” which in Donne’s time would most probably have been pronounced as two separate words: “no thing.” It is clear that this is a thematically significant division, for it further emphasizes both the speaker’s devastation and the potential generative ambiguity.

The question of resulting substance, positive or negative, depends upon this pattern of alchemical and generative imagery. Donne’s word choice suggests careful arrangement, especially in how the liver’s death produces an elixir that is related to images of growth and continuation. The images simultaneously occupy spiritual and material domains, suggesting a tension often noted in Donne’s writing.

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