I don’t do poetry.
There’s a famous definition of poetry – Professor Bergonzi’s definition – that says that if the words go to the end of the line, it’s prose; if they don’t, it’s poetry. This must be hard-wired into my brain because even if a few lines of a poem are quoted in a novel, my eyes skip those lines and jump straight to the nearest available bit of prose.
Shocking admission for an English graduate, but there you go. And hence I was a bit surprised this morning when a few fragments of a poem drifted unbidden into my head. Not any old poem either – a really rather difficult one.
I remember studying it at university and I really wonder if I understood it then as well as I think I do now. It seems to capture perfectly the peculiar depths of midwinter gloom. It also sums up how I’ve been feeling for the last few weeks. Hey, maybe John Donne merely suffered from SAD and needed some UV therapy…
So here we go. If you have a problem with poetry too, you are not alone. But read the first stanza at least. “The world’s whole sap is sunk / The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk” is a fantastic bit of writing.
Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day
being the shortest day
by John Donne
‘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,
Compared 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.