‘TIS the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world’s whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.
Study me then, you who shall lovers be:
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.
All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.
But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.
Now for the prosaic version.
It is the very end of the year, and it is St. Lucy’s day, with scarcely any light. The sun is exhausted and only shines sporadically — it gives no steady illumination. Starlight is feeble, and the world’s life seems to have drained itself into the ground and made it waterlogged like a person with edema. Life itself has sunk to the very bottom and seems dead and buried. Still, all these things seem positively cheerful in comparison to me. I am reduced to feeling like the words engraved on a tombstone.
So study me all of you who will be lovers next spring — which seems to me as far away as another life — because I feel I have become like death itself, though love with its magic did distill out of my nothingness the deepest and most concentrated essence of myself. Love has ruined me. He has now re-made me out of absence, darkness and death, almost as if I had been born out of nonexistent things.
Everyone else seems to have the best of all good things. They are made of life, soul, form, body, spirit — they are real. I, on the other hand, have been boiled away and evaporated and have become a grave containing emptiness — a grave in which emptiness is buried.
So many times in the past we wept together and almost drowned in our tears. Together we lost all sense of order and coherence, becoming chaotic when we had to pay attention to anything besides each other. When we were apart we were lifeless as corpses.
But I am by her death made into a nothing, like the universe before the moment of creation. I am like a magical potion made out of this anti-matter. Even if I were a real human being (and I know what that is like because I used to be one) I would think myself better off if I were an animal.
Even plants and stones have feelings, and they are more real and alive than I am. They are capable of loving and hating. Even if I were a nothing, a mere object, I would have the capacity to cast a shadow when light shone on me. But I am truly nothing, and the sun will never shine for me again.
All of you — and you lovers – spring will come around for you, and let you feel passion. Go ahead and enjoy your summer! Since she is enjoying and celebrating this long night, let me get ready for her, and let me call this hour her vigil, and her evening, since it is the end of both the year and this day.
“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” notwithstanding, Donne’s stiff upper lip was less due to an accommodation with death, than to a fervent belief in the hereafter where he would share God’s heavenly glory. Donne’s ambitions were never modest.
Donne’s poem about St Lucy’s day, which was published posthumously in 1633, is thought to have been written in 1627 when both his patron Lucy Countess of Bedford as well as Donne’s fifth child Lucy, then aged 18, to whom the countess had stood as godmother, died.
By this time Donne had been enjoying his handsomely remunerated position as Dean of St. Paul’s for a period of around six years. Three years before that he had received his doctorate in divinity from Cambridge, so in the years before his death Donne had achieved many of his worldly ambitions, and perhaps all of his spiritual ones as well. Besides, it must have been especially gratifying to him to be earning his bread whilst also following his vocation. I consider most preachers to be by temperament attention seekers and getters, so it must have suited Donne very well to be paid for declaiming from the pulpit with the authority of the Church of England fully behind his hortatory efforts.
Why then these abysmal thoughts, so inconsistent with Christian faith of the saved soul and the happily hereafter? In his lustful irreverent youth Donne was filled with energy and optimism. Now as a well-paid, well-respected and well-situated prelate comes this baleful moan of a poem, and at that, less a real poem than a really bad sermon.
Here again we find the exaggeratedly stretched conceits of Donne’s habitual vanity, as he steadily works himself into an increasingly abject position, when those very conceits compel him to a contortionis’st twisting and distending of sinews in order to cram himself in to a tighter and tighter confinement. But Donne first makes sure we know ahead of time that his chosen box has been lined with rusty nails.
In his downward progress from animal to vegetable to mineral he goes on grinding away in his plummeting trajectory straight into a pulverised residue of the insensate. It is so very difficult to be charitable, and to find any dignity in Donne’s insistent self-indulgence and the soggy ‘hydroptik’ of his dropsical preachments. Now that ‘the alembic’ – that uterine symbol of fulfillment, wholeness and merging lovers – has lost its original meaning, and has been left behind in the past of Donne’s former manipulations of women and his persuasions of them to venery (The Flea). The wine of younger love has now turned to the vinegar of sour grapes as he invidiously induces lovers, by means of his preachments, to feel anxious on account of their futures. Donne’s alchemical conceit has been reduced to a mere chemical precipitate.
It must not have been all that bad after all. We know that Donne recovered sufficiently from his funk to write his poem “Sappho and Philænis,” (published posthumously in 1631) and said to be the earliest English example of a lesbian love poem.
So here then is my conclusion:
This is by no means a true poem, but the gloom induced by falling under the somber spell of a dark winter evening, and the overall deadness of the season. That is not to say that the Muse, on a day so significant to her offices, may not have peeked in Donne’s cloudy window, but Preacher Donne soon shooed her away with his foolish maunderings.
It is confused, whining and bathetic. There are even grammatical errors. I want to ask what is the object the word day’s in the first line possesses?
What can day’s Lucy’s possibly mean?
If it is a wanton bid for pity, I think Donne should not have importuned quite so crudely and insistently. He might have done better if he had left it to us to give it freely, rather than trying to extract it by force. Even if one is very badly off, whining is not the best way to gain interest.
“Were I am man “ etc – makes absolutely no sense. All these faults are compounded by extraordinary exaggeration and excessive mental gymnastics “If I an ordinary nothing” etc tell me that he is not so despairing as to disavow verbal slithering. And then he is so so patronising – his love is noble, but the love of others is animalistic and capricious ( like a goat)
and not only that, but hell and its fires must be evoked to chasten lovers he must feel to be inferior to himself
Donne may have supposed he recovered his investment of time, paper, ink and tallow, but in my view it would have been better if he had just had an early dinner an gone to bed instead.
Ah…. the great metaphysical poets!
* In Donne’s time, the calendar would have placed St. Lucy’s day around the 13th of December, but in our Calendar it falls in December 21st.