St. Lucy’s Day and Night, the 13th of December: To My Mother Alice, to my Grandmother Helen, and to Professor Cleanth Brooks


I come back to John Donne’s “Nocturnal” poem every December 13, because it is the greatest Calendrical Celebration written in the English Language, though Eliot’s Wasteland and Four Quartets, and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream have obvious, explicit, and implicit calendrical significances.  I dedicate this year’s nearly annual republication to my mother Alice, my grandmother Helen, and to Professor Cleanth Brooks, the three people who first taught me to appreciate and love the 17th Century by the time I was 16.  

If time travel were ever to be truly invented, that is the century I would most want to visit and into which I would travel and deeply explore.  I would start, I think, from Athens, Greece, to see the Parthenon before its final destruction by gunpowder.  Then from Athens up the Adriatic coast past Dalmatia and the east Coast of Italy Venice, Modena, Milan, and then job back east to Vienna, travel through Austria (still then the last outpost of Christendom against the Turks invading from the Southeast) and southern Germany to Paris in the time of Louis XIV and the foundation of Versailles.  After exploring the Northern Italian, Southern German, and French Countryside I would to the lands of both my grandfathers’ ancestors in London, Essex, East Anglia, Lincoln and Yorkshire.  But then from there I would follow their descendants to Jamestown and explore the earliest tidewater settlements, perhaps visit the early Lees and Madisons, before turning north to Maryland, Philadelphia, New York Boston and Cambridge.  In that latter small town by the Charles River, I would visit the fledgling Harvard College, the only such institution of higher learning north of Mexico and the Caribbean, and ask to have a look at their library and sit in on some classes.  From Cambridge and Boston I would go first up to visit my grandmother’s ancestors in Quebec and Montreal, and then canoe down the echoing stillness of the Mississippi River to the realm of the Natchez and Caddo, where my grandmother’s ancestors would later move.  And then I would take off across Texas through Comanche country to Santa Fe and Taos.  Finally I would go all around 17th Century Spanish Mexico from Querétaro and Guanajuato to Mexico City, Cordoba, and Tlaxcala, and back to beautiful Mérida, Yucatán and especially Izamal, Motul, and Valladolid.  From these outposts of civilization I would like to visit the last free and independent Itzá Maya of Tayasal by Lake Petén, the direct descendants of the rulers of Chichén Itzá, and watch their use of hieroglyphic books contemporaneous with, as Michael Coe pointed out, Cotton Mather reading theology at Harvard and preparing to burn witches at Salem.

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s 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,
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.

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