John Donne’s Nocturnal

A linear reading of Donne’s “Nocturnal”


‘Tis the year’s midnight and it is the day’s,’.  The very first line of this poem hints at the constant shift in perspective that marks this poem.  By drawing a parallel between the midnight of one day and that of the entire year, Donne has put in place a relationship between the small and the large.  From one perspective the midnight is just another midnight and yet from another it is the longest, darkest night of the year, saturated with significance.  Donne’s fascination for astronomy and his adeptness with astronomical metaphors become a starting point for this poem and an apt beginning since the poem concerns itself with perspective, interpretation and significance. Donne’s metaphors are never common, and in “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”, the primary opposition of darkness and light, night and day, should appear hackneyed to us.  But working with these oft-used metaphors the poem places them in a novel context, and it is the unique end to which they are used that separates their use here from any other.  In distinguishing between the night of the day and the night of the year, Donne alludes to the darkness before creation, an allusion we will return to later in the poem.  Without specifically saying so, Donne puts in place a comparison between the Sun, the Earth (as it revolves around the Sun) and Lucy.  From this relativization we move into a description of the sun’s condition and here we see not the proud ruler of the sky but a tired sun spreading unequal rays. The sun is “spent”, a sexual and emotional fatigue that we shall see Donne apply to himself as well.  At this point, the sun is uneven, showering more light on some than on others, perhaps least on Donne. Yet Donne would, or should, be the last person to cry out against being left in the dark, he has complained too many times against the intrusions of the rising sun.  Now it seems as if the darkness Donne finds himself in is the vengeance of a jealous lover spurned, and if we carry this thought to its conclusion, it is the vengeance of a jealous God wreaked on one who has loved a mortal too fervently.  In this reading, the sun itself conspires against Donne, leaving him without a center around which to r-evolve once his world (his love) has been shattered. Donne returns however, to triumph in this lack of a fixed object, a blindness as it were, to create for himself a firm ground upon which to stand.  Donne, world-less is left to drift in space, and he creates for himself a stability (a rock) from a devotion to Lucy.  By doing this, Donne out-trumps the sun once again, Lucy has not only been his world, she now takes the place of the sun, and Donne revolves around her, worshiping his beloved.

As soon as we have been given a taste of the rather subdued tone of this poem, we are propelled into a hyperbole of death and absence.  In the nocturnal’s world the life-blood has disappeared, soaked by an eternally thirsty terrestrial existence.  Life itself has shrunk into a corpse that is ‘dead and interred’, the earth taking from this dead thing all the water it contains, shrinking it.  The word ‘shrunk’ can be understood in two contexts, the physical shrinking of the manifestation of life (the body) –an interpretation that reverberates with the use of  the metaphor “absence” that follows later in the poem– and the temporal reduction of life into the moment of death, another thought that we will return to later in the poem.  Despite the seemingly unambiguous nature of these phrases we cannot but suspect that a life that has withered, and had the life- blood sucked out of it, retains another facet of existence, that it is transformed into an extremely condensed form of this aspect.  In this manner the love that is dead has been reduced to a dense mass of memory and Donne’s love can only express itself by purging all direction from his mind.  An interpretation that is borne out by the use of “bed’s-feet” which are after all what the bed rests upon.  Since the bed signifies many things in Donne’s work, most notably the place where the lovers repose in the physical world, its feet become the support for the entire love-relationship and to shrink down to the bed’s feet is to reduce oneself to the essential structural support. The metaphoric density of this poem is underlined by the relationship between support, the earth, elevation, the poem’s own feet and gravity (a concept unfamiliar to Donne except in the abstract), each of these terms can be applied to the phrase “bed’s- feet” to arrive at a novel interpretation.  What we are particularly interested in is the interpretation that leaves Donne directionless and where he searches for a nocturnal to guide him through the night. Embedded in this interpretation is the assumption that the core of a love-relationship is the sense of loss felt in the lover’s absence. The core, the epitome of death and thirst is the epitaph, a condensation of meaning to the pith.  This then, is what is left after death, the epitaph that celebrates existence and hungers for it. Fundamental to the poem’s sense of absence and its status in love is the confusion between the poem and the poet.  We do not know what “me” refers to in the last line of the first stanza.  It could equally be Donne, or this poem itself which increasingly appears to be an elegy to a dead love.  A love whose last remains are enshrined in the poet, who becomes a relic of the love-relationship, or canonized in the poem itself.  At the same time, the term epitaph hints at the status of the word as a symbol for an absent thing.  All language, it seems, is a compromise to overcome the absence of the object itself.


The confusion over ‘me’ continues in the second stanza and by the third line is so acute that we are not sure of the self-referential ‘I’ itself.  This uncertainty and lack of an understanding of the self is an integral part of the experience of death.  We can only conceive of ourselves as living beings and have no point of reference for an existence beyond death, the very fact that we call such an idea “life after death” underscores this proposition.  By placing himself (and the poem) beyond the event of death, Donne has created a barrier between the reader and the poet/poem.  The dead speak to us, and we must listen, if only because this event itself is so unique. Within the world of the poem the keen awareness our initial fascination leads to (absorbing us) is put to good effect as we face one fantastic proposition after another.

For his art did express

A quintessence even from nothingness,

From dull privations and lean emptiness.

He ruined me, and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

Even from a poet whose poems are truly fabulous, this would appear to be a little too much.  Yet this is not the only time Donne will ever use such a metaphor.  In this poem it is love who “wrought new alchemy”, in the 14th divine sonnet it will be God.  Or is it truly God even in the 14th sonnet?  And is it Donne or the poem that is being re-fashioned, wrought or re-begot here?  Is it the reader, the poet or God who brings about this re-begetting, a flowering of life. Neither of these questions have certain answers, and in Donne’s work they can be answered in different ways.  To tackle the question of the agent of rebirth, we must consider the possible candidates, a divine force, the reader or the poet.  If the poem is the object that arises from nothingness, the agent would have to be either the reader or the poet both of whom give life to a dead thing, the poet in writing the epitaph for a dead love and the reader for breathing life into the poem, an epitaph that requires a reader to interpret it.  The conventional reading would assign this role to either a divinity or love itself (perhaps even a God of Love, but Donne avoids classical allusions wherever possible).

In either case, the lyric impeccability of these lines does not permit us to pause for even a moment to reflect on their problematic but forces us onto the next word, with an inertia that drives us to the last word in the stanza, where we can finally stop to catch our breath. Donne is often dramatic and “A Nocturnal” lacks the overt dramatic settings of some of the other poems, most notably “The Flea”, yet its allusions to prior dramatic events (both canonical and apocryphal) stand proxy for this absence.  In particular, the allusion to a birth from nothingness, (a suggestion that carries biblical overtones) brought about by love, is an especially strong reference. Reading the lines “For I am every dead thing / In whom love wrought new alchemy” by themselves, it appears as if the poem itself is being wrought by love (and Donne refers to the poem as a “well wrought urn”, once again typified as a receptacle for the ashes and memories of the beloved) and the poet simply acts as an agent for his love to “express” itself in this love offering.  Now, the beloved becomes the divine and the very existence of the lover is an offering to the divine, an offering to reciprocate the great boon of life. Ironically, or perhaps convolutedly, the poet is an expression of the beloved/Love God’s art and seeks to create, with his own art, a poem to place before the beloved/Love God.

In overtly addressing the poem to the dead (since they have yet to experience the rebirth of love) who are alive (since they do not think of themselves as dead), Donne has perhaps overcome the problem of influence. Yet, his status relative to the reader still elevates him (as one who has experienced love) and the inconsistency deepens when we see him as a manifestation of the divine, or perhaps even a prophet of love, a suggestion that is corroborated by the emphatic “Study me, you who shall lovers be”. Donne then, is the son of Love reborn, but one who seeks to become a proxy for the father.

In the line “He ruined me, and I am rebegot” we find yet another parallel with the 14th divine sonnet, here Donne’s dream of being refashioned, broken, burnt and made new.  Donne must point out that he is fashioned from “things which are not”, or rather states we can only understand in terms of their absence.  The transformation of Donne, his refashioning, is so complete that he has no awareness of life before this rebirth, there is nothing for him before this love.  He can only understand his present state in terms of an absence of “all that’s good”.  The true poignancy of this poem is not in the absence of love, or the good, but an absolute incomprehension –and total loss– of an existence without them. Love has become life, and life without love has become death.  As the new-born child has no recollection of existence before its conception, Donne has no conception of a prior existence.  Just as a child is born of separate elements that exist in themselves, the lover Donne is born of independent entities, the beloved, love and himself.  When these three entities are torn apart (and do they constitute the three personed God of the 14th sonnet) what is left is nothing.  The interlude has changed everything.


The third stanza ropes in the outside world as Donne laments the lack of “good things” for himself.  The repetition of ‘all’ in the first line prepares us for the inevitable rejoinder, that Donne has nothing. What we see is an image of Donne as the grave that holds the distilled essence of nothingness.  What has been alluded to in the earlier stanzas takes its final form here as we see clearly the nothingness take shape.  With the occurrence of the word ‘limbeck’ in conjunction with ‘grave’, the conception of the grave as a container (or well wrought urn) for the essence of the dead is solidified.  We do not have to restrict this interpretation to the literal interment of a corpse; on the contrary this metaphor must be extended to include both the poem and the poet.  Donne and “A Nocturnal” are the last vestiges of a dead love, both contain the distilled remains of the relationship.

The compression of life to this love, and that of the world to the two lovers, continues as we are told of the floods of tears the lovers have shed which ‘drowned the whole world, us two’.  This is a concept Donne uses elsewhere, but never with such intensity. The line that follows tells of the consequences of expanding the lovers’ world to include ‘aught else’, the result is chaos.  Donne seems to suggest that the natural order of things demands that the lovers be preoccupied with each other, the moment they pay attention to anything else chaos ensues.  In this we can find a further intermingling of Donne’s thoughts on religion and love.  To turn away from the true love (God) leads to chaos.  Donne’s sharp, almost absolute claims concerning the nature of his love and its intensity would be irksome if it were not for the hesitant, halting tone of the third stanza.  In the short punctuated lines we hear the poem itself weeping and cannot but empathize with Donne in his quixotry. In the fourth stanza we encounter the idea of a concentrated nothingness once more, once again in the word ‘growth’ we see an inevitability, even a steady progression to this state.  To build from this an understanding of a ‘big bang and big crunch’ theory of the universe would be perhaps going a little too far, but we can use this instance to further explore the view of love advanced in this poem. Donne has woven into this poem the conception of love as the short lived life of a moth. It seems as if his life is a cocoon from which he breaks free for the short span of a day, to truly imbibe existence only to retreat at night into its (his life’s) inevitable death.  What are we to make of the suggestion that the second nothingness is more acute than the first.  Couched within the dense layers of metaphor is the germ of an idea, that the interlude has changed the poet/poem/reader, that despite the retreat into the original state of non-existence we can never go back to the original state we occupied. Juxtaposed with Donne’s claims that he is the essence of ‘things that are not’, we find him unable to place himself.  We hear his cry for purpose, an expression of desire for a reason, any reason to live, an end to work towards with ‘some means’.  He has none of this and with this declaration he occupies the position of the ancient mariner, tortured by the past, yet unable to do anything about it except perhaps retell the story.  The intensity of the prior love-relationship has sucked him dry, he can no longer ‘detest and love’, and in that he is not even a vegetable or a stone (the last almost blasphemous unless a reference to Donne’s Catholic upbringing and the status of the idol).  Donne’s sense of himself as nothing seems intrinsically linked to time.  He is not the shadow of something that exists in this moment, but rather the remains of what has existed in the past. Time is the culprit that has stolen from Donne what he most desired, and the desire itself.  If it is indeed time that is to blame for Donne’s annihilation, then his helplessness is even more acute, and the growth he refers to is steady in that it takes him further away from his existence as every moment passes.


In the last stanza, Donne reaffirms the uniqueness of his love and a conviction that it shall never occur again.  Despite the lack of open derision on his part, it seems as if a love that must rely on an external sun ‘to fetch new lust and give it’ to us is something less than the self-sufficient love that is Donne’s.  Donne’s generosity shames us as he blesses us and asks us to enjoy our summer, he must retreat to his personal chapel and maintain a vigil for his beloved. The line between religion and love is blurred here once again, perhaps with a finality that will bear no further expression. Donne declares this night, by calling it –giving it a name in the original nothing– her (E)eve.  There seems to be another gap here, as if Donne is relegating to himself the task of giving a name to these things, a task that can only recall Adam’s task in the garden of Eden. This action undermines Donne’s claim of everlasting nothingness, his declarations of purposelessness while he finds his purpose in worshiping his beloved.  “A Nocturnal” is beginning to look like a complex theory of the need for religion to give us a hook on which to hang our lives.  In this sense is the meaning of the term nocturnal realized, not only as a device to locate ourselves but as a form of prayer.  Continuing the theme that resonates throughout the poem, Donne returns to the original line in the poem, a statement of fact concerning the status of this midnight in both the day and the year, for him and the world, for this moment and his life.  Yet the last line is not exactly what the first was, the telling of the poem has changed Donne, the poem itself and the reader as well.  In its metaphoric density “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day” is among Donne’s finest poems, in its blending of the impulse towards religious and secular love and devotion it is as insightful as any other poem will ever be.