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a nocturnal

By Stephen Burt

Either today or tomorrow is the shortest day of the year: before the calendar reforms of the sixteenth century, that day would have been December 13, which is why that day, and not this day, remains Saint Lucy’s Day. While many people of Scandinavian descent have already celebrated St. Lucy herself by letting small children walk around with electric lights on their heads (thus supplanting an older custom that would today be seen as a crazy fire hazard), many others will notice the solstice and look up poems appropriate for the shortest day, of which three below the fold.


The first one you probably saw coming: it’s John Donne’s “A nocturnall upon S. Lucie’s day, Being the shortest day,” and it begins:
Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunk:
The generall balme th’ hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither as to the beds-feet life is shrunk,
Dead and enterr’d, yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.
(“Enterr’d” = “interred,” though perhaps with a pun on “entered.”)Some people think he wrote this bleakest of his short poems after the death of his wife, which would probably make it one of his last lyric works. You can find the whole thing here in modern spelling, or here in something more like the spellings Donne used.
For some quiet contemporary darkness, there’s Lavinia Greenlaw’s “In the Zoo After Dark,” which begins:
No full moon or forest fire.
Unnatural light
takes shape and stays there.
Shadows adjust
to what could be night.
Animals intended
to live an ocean apart
have got an idea of each other.
You can find the whole poem by scrolling down here, buy her very good American book of poems for about twenty cents if you’re the first one to click here, and find her first (UK-only) book here. Alas, Greenlaw seems to have nearly given up poems for novels: I’m eager to read her forthcoming memoir and her second novel, having loved her first.
Finally, I give you Lucie Brock-Broido (who has an audio review here, and a review from Bookslut here among others). Brock-Broido, who called an early poem “Lucie and Her Sisters,” remains quite aware of the resonances in her name, and her latest book includes at least two poems that make use of the St. Lucy’s Day props and costumes: the better of the two is called “The Halo That Would Not Light,” and I give you only its first half here. If you see lines of dots, they’re not hers; I put them in only to make the indented lines show up where they should, as Harriet would otherwise run them flush left:
When, after many years, the raptor beak
Let loose of you,
……………………..He dropped your tiny body
In the scarab-colored hollow
…………………….Of a carriage, left you like a finch
Wrapped in its nest of linens wound
With linden leaves in a child’s cardboard box.
Happy solstice, everyone. We’ll get more light each day from Sunday on.

Comments (3)

  • On December 21, 2007 at 3:18 pm jane wrote:

    …surprised not to find “Stopping By Woods…” here; rather the most well-known poem set on the solstice day, no? Or are we insisting on purely literal reference — I certainly take the pre-holiday setting and “darkest evening of the year” to be clear enough…

  • On December 21, 2007 at 8:43 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Over at my amateur music blog, you can listen to a homemade guitar song called “Shortest day of the year” from Dec. 21, 2005…
    http://golittlesparrow.blogspot.com/

  • On December 22, 2007 at 9:16 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Indeed, “Stopping By Woods” is the Poem of the Day today at the Poetry Foundation website:
    Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 21st, 2007 by Stephen Burt.