This poem is part of Songs and Sonnets, a collection of poems published two years after John Donne’s death. Songs and Sonnets includes 55 poems, which are not strictly “songs” or “sonnets”, that were not conceived as a compilation including ‘A Lecture upon the Shadow.’ They were written between 1590 and 1617 and later edited and grouped in different editions of Donne’s Poems. Consequently, the poems are all part of a love lyric but don’t always portray a single approach to love. Songs and Sonnets also includes poems like The Flea, The Good Morrow, and The Sun Rising, among others.
The poem narrates how a relationship that appeared to be blossoming has later deteriorated. Thus, love is one of the main themes of A Lecture upon the Shadow. John Donne is known for portraying intense emotions through conceits. A conceit is a metaphor that compares two dissimilar things in an unusual way. Particularly, in A Lecture upon the Shadow, the lyrical voice compares the different stages of a relationship to the course of a day and the movement of the sun.
A Lecture upon the Shadow follows the sonnet form loosely. The traditional sonnet is formed by an octave and a sestet with an ABBAABBA CDDCEE (or CDCDEE) rhyme scheme. The Shakespearean sonnet, which is contemporary to Donne’s poetry, is formed by three quatrains and a couplet in iambic pentameter with ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme. A Lecture upon the Shadow has 26 lines in iambic pentameter with an AABBCDDCEEE rhyme scheme. The varying couplets and their rhyme resemble those of Shakespeare’s poetry. Moreover, the poem uses a great number of poetic devices such as alliteration, assonance, and extended metaphors.
A Lecture upon the Shadow Analysis
Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.
These three hours that we have spent,
Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produc’d.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
We do those shadows tread,
And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us, and our cares; but now ’tis not so.
That love has not attain’d the high’st degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.
The first stanza presents a “lecture” in love. The lyrical voice will present a number of images that convey the different stages of a relationship through an exemplary tone as if he/she were one to give advice and teach about love (“I will read to thee”). Notice how these introductory lines are directly addressed to the reader (“Stand still”) and coupled with alliteration (“Stand still”, “A lecture, love, in love’s”) in order to bring the attention to the lyrical voice’s message. The poem then shifts to a narrative about two lovers and, although addressing this particular situation, the lines could potentially refer to love in general.
The lovers walk together and encounter two shadows (“two shadows went/Along with us, which we ourselves produc’d”) that represent possible conflicts between them. In A Lecture upon the Shadow, light represents love and bliss, while shadows depict disagreement and discord. These mentioned shadows disappear as “now the sun is above our head”, meaning that the poem follows these lovers throughout the day and noon represents the high point of the relationship, as there are no traces of possible conflict (“And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d”).
In this manner, the lyrical voice explains that while the relationship grows (“So whilst our infant loves did grow”) the shadows also grow (“Disguises did, and shadows, flow/From us, and our care”), but, at that moment, that is not an issue (“but now ’tis not so/That love has not attain’d the high’st degree”). Again, this extends the imagery related to noon presented before. Notice how these images of the light and darkness, and the passing of the day function as an extended metaphor for the different stages of a relationship, which is also coupled by further use of alliteration and structured rhyme.
Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
As the first were made to blind
Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westwardly decline,
To me thou, falsely, thine,
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day;
But oh, love’s day is short, if love decay.
Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his first minute, after noon, is night.
The second stanza introduces the decline of this relationship. Inevitably, new shadows appear as the day follows (“Except our loves at this noon stay/We shall new shadows make the other way”). This suggests that love grows until its summit, which is associated to noon, and then decreases over time, following the movement of the sun. Love is, consequently, portrayed as fleeting. Meanwhile, the lyrical voice makes several remarks that differ from this and reveal a possible, but subtle, optimistic look on love: “Except our loves at this noon stay”, “If our loves faint”, “If love decay”.
The lyrical voice explains how the first shadows mentioned before, that could be associated with the morning, are different from these new shadows: “As the first were made to blind/Others, these which come behind/Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes”, “The morning shadows wear away,/But these grow longer all the day”. As the lovers continue to walk, these new shadows show “westwardly decline”, meaning they represent deceptions that would affect the relationship, as they can’t see each other clearly (“To me thou, falsely, thine,/And I to thee mine actions shall disguise”).
The lyrical voice references the analogy between love and the passing of the day directly: “But oh, love’s day is short”. Again, this emphasizes the ephemeral nature of love and the cyclical movement associated with the day, in which “first minute after noon, is night.” The final lines reinforce this idea of growing love as “full constant light” and decay as “night” that is presented throughout the poem. Notice that, in the final lines, love is personified in the capitalization of the word and in the use of the verb “is” and the possessive “his”.
About John Donne
John Donne was born in 1572 and died in 1631. He was an English poet, cleric, and lawyer. He converted to Anglicanism later in his life. By 1615 he became a priest because King James I ordered him to do so. Donne was a member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614. He also spent a short time in prison because he married his wife, Anne More, without permission.
John Donne is most commonly known for being part of the ‘metaphysical poets’, a group of poets who wrote about love and religion using complex metaphors called conceits. These poets didn’t know each other and this name was given by literary critics some years later. Nevertheless, John Donne is considered to be one of the best metaphysical poets.