John Donne is in the lyrical doldrums

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To mark the time of year, here is a fine poem by one of English literature’s most remarkable poets and orators, John Donne (1572-1631). Donne’s poetry tends to be energetic, uncompromising and witty; it revels in apparent contradiction and clever wordplay. Donne’s preferred themes are love, death and religion. He is often regarded as one of the principal ‘Metaphysical Poets’ (and for my money is the most consistently interesting of that bunch).
This poem is saturated in despair; some scholars maintain Donne wrote it in all likelihood in 1627, the year in which his daughter Lucy died, as did his friend the Countess of Bedford, also named Lucy.
A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day contains what a high school teacher of mine memorably described as ‘probably the single bleakest trope in the whole of English poetry’. See if you can you guess which image he was referring to…

A NOCTURNAL UPON ST. LUCY’S DAY,
BEING THE SHORTEST DAY.
by John Donne

‘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.

For more on John Donne, visit: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-donne

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