Sunday 22 December 2013


It's good to know that the Shortest Day is already behind us; it was yesterday, the 21st of December, and from now on, imperceptibly at first, the days will be getting longer - a cheering thought.
For many centuries, the Shortest Day was thought to be St Lucy's Day, the 13th of December, a feast still rather beautifully celebrated in Baltic countries. John Donne in his famous Nocturnal took St Lucy's Day to be 'the year's midnight' and, as ever, enlisted Nature in the grand project of expressing John Donne's state of mind. Note how, by the end of the extraordinarily beautiful first stanza, he has wrestled the subject round to Himself, and that's where he keeps it for the rest of the poem. It's magnificent stuff, quite brilliantly done - but reading it again reminds me why I seldom return to Donne for pleasure. So much even of his best poetry (especially before he discovered God) is given over to his endless, often florid, self-starring psychodrama. Or am I being unfair? Probably. Here, anyway, is his Nocturnal Upon St Lucy's Day (as an epitaph, it makes an interesting contrast with this one)...

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,
Compar'd 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.


  1. It's an appalling evocation of desolation at the loss of a loved one. Painful and shocking to read. 'lean emptiness' and 'made us carcasses' is particularly shocking and reminds me of states of depression encountered in Hopkins' 'pitched past pitch of grief' in the Terrible Sonnets. It makes me shiver! Guy

  2. Yes Guy, it certainly evokes an extreme of desolation, and does it brilliantly. I wonder if it's really an epitaph though - there doesn't seem to be room in it for anyone but John Donne. The contrast with the Catherine Dyer epitaph is, I think, instructive...

  3. Does it claim to be an epitaph Nige?

  4. I think so Guy - there seems to be a dead loved one in the picture by the penultimate stanza...