A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucies Day

    Being the Shortest Day

    TIS the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
    Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
    The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
    Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
    The worlds whole sap is sunke:
    The generall balme th' hydroptique earth hath drunk,
    Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunk,
    Dead and enterr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
    Compar'd with mee, who am their Epitaph.

    Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
    At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
    For his art did expresse
    A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
    From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:
    He ruin'd mee, and I am re-begot
    Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

    All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
    Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
    I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
    Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
    Have wee two wept, and so
    Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
    To be two Chaosses, when we did show
    Care to ought else; and often absences
    Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.

    But I am by her death, (which word wrongs her)
    Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;
    Were I a man, that I were one,
    I needs must know; I should preferre,
    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 Sunne renew.
    You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
    At this time to the Goat is runne
    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
    Enjoy your summer all;
    Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall,
    Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
    This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
    Bothe the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is.

    John Donne (1572-1631)

An English poet Donne wrote A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucies Day in the early 1600s and it was published in Poems, By J.D. with Elegies on the Authors Death by 1633.

Most of the poem is readily understandable but some of the words may need explanation:

    Line 3: The term flasks is an obsolete variant of flashes.
    Line 4: squibs are unimpressive fireworks.
    Line 6.: a general balm. It has been considered that since Donne wrote about it in one of his verse letters, "In everything there naturally grows/A Balsamum balm to keep it fresh and new," That it probably means hydroptic or dropsical.
    Line 7: One studied expert notes that in Hippocrates' famous description of the signs of imminent death the dying man huddles at the foot of the bed.
    Line 14: express means to press out.
    Line 15: quintessenceis the fifth essence of ancient and mediaeval philosophy and alchemy, latent in all things and the substance of the heavenly bodies.
    Lines 17-18: ruin'd is most likely intended in an alchemical sense of reducing to elements such as; absence, darkness, death are intended to match the three basic elements of alchemy: salt, sulphur, and mercury.
    Line 21: limbec is from alembic for distillation.
    Line 29: elixir refers again to quintessence.
    Line 31: prefer is intended to mean to have the ability to select and reject. Donne is correlating powers possessed by man, beasts, plants, and stones. A quotes from a sermon in which Donne says that even stones, though they have not even a vegetable soul, "may have life" and may therefore select and reject, for example "detest and love."
    Line 34: invest means to clothe.
    Line 39: the Goat refers to Capricorn as the winter solstice when the sun enters Capricorn.
Considered to be a metaphysical love poem, he composed it in honor of St Lucy's Day which was celebrated by the English (Julian) calender on December 13th the shortest day of the year. It's best known as the darkest day of the bleakest season, "the year's midnight". Donne observes it as the one nearest to oblivion, or nothingness, requiring the tiniest transmutation of imagination to transfigure him, in his grief, into nothingness itself. This whole idea of transformation is termed a metaphysical conceit, Donne and George Herbert are two poets who often used this tool and it simply is a means for the poet to express an imaginative extreme. As Donne has done so by comparing his "nothingness" to the grieving soul. By all means, when he gets to the fourth stanza he has analyzed his various degrees of nothingness all in abbacccdd form.

Selected Sources

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

University of Toronto Libraries:

CST Approved.

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