`Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke.
The generall balm th’ hydroptick Earth hath drunke,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their epitaph.
This is the first of the five stanzas of John Donne’s great poem “A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day, Being the shortest day,” perhaps written after the death of his wife Anne in 1617.
The prosody of the poem is intricate (each stanza has lines of 10, 10, 8, 8, 6, 10, 10, 10, 10 syllables, rhyming A, B, B, A, C, C, C, D, D). And the logic of the poem is so complex (as was characteristic of Donne and the poets influenced by him, later called the “Metaphysicals”) that no one is quite sure whether its ultimate message is despair or hope, or resignation.
However, the towering metaphor is simple. It is the deepest, darkest moment: midnight of the longest night of the year. St. Lucy’s Day was December 13, which was regarded as midwinter. In the seventeenth century, the new Gregorian calendar (promulgated at Rome in 1582) had not yet replaced the Julian calendar in England, so the winter solstice (Dec. 21 Gregorian) fell on Dec. 11.
The Latin forenames Lucius and Lucia are presumed to derive from lux, “light,” though there is also a word lucus meaning a dark “wood.” Saint Lucia of Syracuse in Sicily was a Christian martyr under the persecution by the emperor Diocletian in 304. In medieval images she was shown presenting her eyes on a platter to her betrothed; dedicated to Christ, she had torn them out rather than marry. We can hope that this legend was just a macabre invention suggested by the connection of “light” with “eyes.” Where her day is still celebrated, as in Sweden, it is a festival of light and she wears candles on her head. Bright or blind, she fits the occasion of the Sun’s death and rebirth. In Donne’s poem. life sinks to its lowest point, to rise again in the new year and spring.
Donne was a religious poet (a priest) and an unblushingly erotic one (“Licence my roving hands and let them goe / Before, behind, about, between, below”), so it is painful to think that the “we two” of the St. Lucy poem referred to Anne. He holds out hope, but for others: “Study me then, you who shall lovers be / At the next world, that is, at the next spring,” when the Sun “to the Goat is run / To fetch new lust,” that is, to Capricornus.
Lucy’s candles or squibs of light, the Geminid meteors of the same date – I’ll have to get back to them.