The Winter Solstice is a dark time.
In the northern hemisphere, it is the longest night of the year.
Yet it is also a joyous time, a time of celebration for we know in our hearts that the light will return, yet again.
I believe that no one has captured the essence of the Winter Solstice more poignantly than has the 16thcentury metaphysical poet, John Donne, in his work, A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day.
In this poem, Donne helps his speaker come to grips with a difficult situation.
‘Tis the year’s midnight’ – the winter solstice – when the ‘sun is spent’ and the world’s ‘whole sap is sunk’. Someone important to the speaker, likely a lover or former lover (suggested by the speaker’s address to ‘other lovers’), has died.
It is indeed a dark time.
Yet the cycle of death is now complete – ‘this time to the Goat is run’ – (i.e. at the winter solstice, the sun enters Capricorn, ‘The Goat’, in order to die and be reborn). Because ‘spring’ is connected through rhyme with ‘thing’ (‘I am every dead thing’), there is hope of regeneration not only for the sun but for the speaker as well. In turn, this will ‘fetch new lust’ (the goat being associated with the genitals and the union of male and female powers).
The desolate speaker takes solace from the next (‘summer’) solstice – ‘let me prepare towards her’ (emphasis added) for after ‘midnight’ comes the new day.
With this, Donne has effectively reset the clock and puts a difficult situation into new perspective.
At the Winter Solstice, we can also choose to do the same. This is a time not only of rest and reflection but also of making choices. Will we carry our troubles into the new solar year or, like the speaker in Donne’s poem, set aside that which no longer serves us in preparation for that which is yet to come?
Standing at the gateway to the next cycle of life and light, you are in position not only to cut away the dead wood of winter but also to sow the seeds for the next spring.
- What will you take away from this poem?
- What action will you take as the result?
A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day
‘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.