‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day’ by John Donne is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of nine lines. These stanzas follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABBACCCDD, alternating end sounds in each stanza.
The lines do not follow one specific pattern of the meter. They vary in lengths, some stretching to ten, others sticking to around six syllables. While the rhyme is different line to line, between the stanzas the lines match. This means that line one of each stanza has the same number of syllables (10) and so on, with each of the lines. They progress through from ten syllables down to six in the middle of the stanza, and then back up to ten again.
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Summary of A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day
The poem begins with the speaker stating that it is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day, and longest night of the year. He refers to it as the year’s midnight. At the time at which Donne was writing the calendar put Saint Lucy’s Day on the same day as the solstice. He is able to make use of Lucy (her name meaning light) and employ the sun as a metaphor for love and hope (or lack thereof).
He spends a great deal of time describing the poor condition the world is in. Everything is dead, just like his own soul and being. The speaker feels that he is in an even worse state than the dead, withered natural landscape. He is its epitaph. He goes on to describe what happened to him.
His saga began with love transforming him into a happy, fulfilled being, and then changing him again into a dead, grave-like one. It is due to “Love” that he is the way he is. It takes a few more lines before a reader is informed that the speaker’s lover is dead. Together they were happy, and when apart they were desperate for one another. Now, the separation is permanent and the speaker does not see any reason to continue living. In fact, mentally and emotionally he feels as if he is already dead.
The poem concludes with the speaker wishing another lover’s a happy spring season. He does not wish his fate on anyone and hopes that they will take advantage of love while they have it. He also adds that this day, Saint Lucy’s Day and the Winter Solstice, is the perfect occasion to hold a vigil for his lost lover. It is the midnight of the year and the season.
Poetic Techniques in A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day
There are a number of poetic techniques used by Donne throughout ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day.’ One of the easiest to spot is alliteration or the repetition of a letter at the beginning of multiple words. This can be seen throughout the poem but in stanza three there are a few good examples. These include: “whole world” and “Love’s limbec.”
Another technique that is more difficult to stop is caesura. This is a kind of formatting applied to lines which divides them into two equal parts, sometimes separated by a comma. There is an example in the first stanza with the line, “The sun is spent, and now his flasks.”
Donne is generally considered to be the speaker in ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day.’ But the context is not entirely clear. Donne suffered a number of losses in his life, including the death of his wife, Anne. It is not certain, but the woman to whom he refers in the text could be her. This influences the overall tone of the poem as the speaker mourns for his lover, but also speaks clearly and beautifully.
Analysis of A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day
‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
In the first stanza of ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day’ the speaker begins by stating that it is the darkest day of the year. This is the “year’s midnight,” more commonly referred to as the winter solstice. There is another reason to take note of the day, it is Saint Lucy’s Day. A day, December 13th, on which the martyr Lucia of Syracuse is celebrated. It is important to note that since Donne wrote this piece the calendar has changed. The solstice no longer falls on this day.
He adds another detail onto the day, that it is only going to be light for seven hours. This is of course a reference to the short period the sun is going to be out on this particular day of the year. England, where Donne lived, would’ve seen approximately this much light. He refers to Lucy as the one who is “unmasked.” He is comparing her to the sun. This is an easy comparison as the name Lucy means “light.”
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,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.
Once the short hours of the day are over the sun sets and it sends out “squids” or small fireworks, rather than the normal vibrant rays of light. The “rays” are not “constant” anymore. This is not a happy time of day. Everything seems to be drained, the “world’s whole sap is sunk.” He compares earth to a tree that has no more sap, another connection to the winter season.
Donne uses the word “hydroptic” in the next lines. This is a simple reference to something containing too much water. The earth has absorbed all the light that is normally put out by the sun. Although the world is a dark and dried up place at this point, Donne makes the argument that he has it worse. Compared to him, they “seem to laugh.” He is “their epitaph.” He is the final say, or summary of all things sad and dead.
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.
In the second stanza of ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day’ Donne reaches out to “lovers” who will come together when spring returns, and tells them to “study” him. He is “every dead thing.” All the dead plants that make up the winter landscape are embodied through him. But, something happened. The force of “Love,” which is personified, “wrought new alchemy” in him. It worked its magic and he was able to feel and love with a full heart.
Unfortunately, this state of being did not last for long and now Donne is in the current sad mindset that inspired the poem. He was “re-begot,” or re-made, by Love, in an image that resembles “darkness,” death, and all other things which “are not.” There is a good reason for this sense of being. It will be explained in the next lines.
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.
In the third stanza of ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day’ Donne compares himself to others he sees and knows. H thinks that everyone else is able to “draw all that’s good.” This contrasts with his own experience. He feels himself unable to draw anything but the bad, dark and dead. Others have “Life, soul, form, sprit.”
Love made him into something else though. He is its “limbec.” This is a reference to a container, known as an “alembic,” used for distillation. The word connects this line up to the previous mention of alchemy. He has been distilled down into nothing. All the things that would’ve made him human are gone. He is in a “grave” of sorts.
Fro the first time another person is added into the poem, a lover. When he and the woman were together thy wept so much they could’ve “Drown’d the whole world.” He adds that they were in some ways detrimental to one another as they devolved into “chaoses.” This only happened under certain circumstances though—when they showed car for something else. Or, if they were absent from one another. Any extended separation turned them into “carcasses.” This is a hint at why Donne is in such a “grave” state now.
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.
At the beginning of the fourth stanza of ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day’ it is revealed that the woman Donne loved and wept with is dead. This is a strange thing for him to consider as the word “death” does not seem to fit with her. It has caused him to devolve even further. The pressure of “Love,” and the knowledge of what it was like to be in love, makes him wish that he’d never been created. He would prefer now that he “were any beast.”
The speaker no longer has any reason to be alive. He is unable to escape the emotions which plague him and now it seems better to join the “plants” or “stones.” It doesn’t matter to him if he is animate or not. When he thinks about his own physical and mental selves, they don’t match. He doesn’t feel like he’s alive anymore but his body tells him differently.
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.
The speaker does not believe that he is ever going to love again. He will not be changed from the state he is in now as “none.” Donne addresses the lovers again, as he did earlier on in the poem. He tells them that they need to, when summer comes, enjoy it. They’re going to love and experience the “new lust” of the season.
In these lines, he also mentions “the lesser sun” and “the Goat.” These two things are connected. It is likely that the “lesser sun” is a reference to the actual physical sun in the sky. He mentions “the Goat” because that is the constellation (Capricorn) that would’ve been in the sky at that time.
Donne reminds the reader that it is Saint Lucy’s Day. While she enjoys the festival the speaker is making plans to rename this day in honor of his lost love. He is going to hold a vigil for her. The day is perfect for this kind of remembrance as it is the midnight of the season and the year. It is the “eve” of a new season and the “eve” of a new year.