A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day Analysis

John Donne

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 417 words.)