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