John Donne’s Nocturne on St. Lucy’s Night (December 13, Old Style, Julian Calendar, Winter Solstice, off by 11 days in 1752)


As I sit here writing on a laptop I bought on or about June 23, 2009, now in a town (San Clemente) I had never visited before September 19, 2009, feeling every bit of my 49 years, 8 months, and 3 days old, (born when Eisenhower was still President in 1960) wondering whether my 17.3068 year old son Charlie (Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln, IV) will make it here for Christmas after all (due to conflicting college interview schedules), and looking at the timeless waves of the Pacific Ocean, I find myself pondering the passage of time, and now realize that December 12, the Feast of Virgin of Guadalupe is about to give way to December 13, St. Lucy’s Day, the great Saint’s Day feast of Palermo and all over Italy known as Santa Lucia, the patroness of the blind, and my late grandmother Helen Eugenie Lucy (Helen means “light” in Greek, “Lucy” is from Latin “Lux”—the Vulgate Latin Genesis reads, of the creation of the world, “Dixitque Deos Fiat Lux, et Lux Erat.” Helen Eugenie Lucy, she was a Latin Valedictorian at a now defunct school in New Orleans called “L’Ecole Royale” (she received a gold medal with the image of “Hypatia”) in a graduating class of 18 girls the year the United States entered “the Great War” (1917)—she raised me….her birthday was December 2…..she would have been 110 if she were still alive (she died in 2001, aged 101 and half).  But before the 11 day Calendar Correction of 1752 (when England and her colonies finally moved from the Julian Calendar first adopted in Rome in 46 B.C. to the Gregorian Calendar first adopted in Rome in 1582 A.D.), December 13 was the date of the Astronomical Winter Solstice….and Easter often fell in the last snows of winter….  There is no more beautiful poem on the passage of time and the seasons in the English language than

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s