Christianity and Literature, Summer 2002 v51 i4 p553(17)

"In whom love wrought new Alchimie": The Inversion of Christian Spiritual Resurrection in John Donne's "A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day". Zimmer, Mary E.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 Conference on Christianity and Literature

When thou thinkest thy selfe swallowed, and buried in affliction[...,] Christ Jesus shall remove thy grave stone, and give thee a resurrection; but if thou thinke to remove it by thine own wit, thine owne power[...,] Digitus Dei non est hic, The hand of God is not in all this.

--John Donne, Sermons 6:78

Although there is little critical consensus concerning John Donne's "A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day,' critics do agree that the poem negotiates a relationship between the human and divine worlds and, more specifically, the loves of both worlds. In doing so, "A nocturnall" takes part in a dominant thematic pattern of Donne's poetry and helps to "illustrat[e] the way in which Donne's poetry, throughout his career, moves along a Great Divide between the sacred and the profane, now facing one way, now another, but always remaining intensely aware of both sides" (Martz 215). With regard to which side of this "Great Divide" the bereaved speaker ends facing, there is substantially more disagreement. As Emma RothSchwartz observes, "commentators are divided on whether `Nocturnall' ends in despair, hope, or stasis," adding that "a satisfactory answer requires consideration of [the poem's] liturgical and alchemical references, and upon a resolution of the poem's other cruces, both verbal and accidental, that rests on a more consistent and empirical theoretical basis than any analysis has shown to date" (89). (1)

The "more consistent and empirical" interpretive basis for which RothSchwartz calls--one that unites the Christian (though not specifically liturgical) and alchemical (2) aspects of "A nocturnall" into a coherent message while elucidating the poems many paradoxes--is provided by a world view, including a cosmogony and its entailed ontology, that in its basic structure is found in both the Christian and alchemical traditions. (3) This world view is implied throughout "A nocturnall," most centrally in its presentation of the spiritual process undergone by its speaker in alchemical terms. Such a presentation evokes a convention that is itself based on this world view--namely, that of figuring Christian spiritual resurrection in terms of alchemical transformation. Nevertheless, although the spiritual process in question is formally similar to both Christian and alchemical resurrection, in that the speaker is reduced to a state of complete non-being and then rebegot to a new existence, his spiritual regeneration is in fact based on an inversion of the "being,' and its associated values, on which such conventional forms of resurrection are based.

By reconstructing this world view underlying Christian and alchemical resurrection in "A nocturnall" this essay shows that the state of complete spiritual non-being in which the speaker lies following his beloved's death is not only a subjective state of despair but also an objective state of ontological privation: the endpoint of a sin-initiated process of decline from immutable being, identified with God, into the change or non-being of this world. This state of complete non-being or death is also the point at which the process can be redeemed through resurrection--that is, the restoration to full being through an act of re-creation. (4) However, in order to undergo spiritual resurrection, or restoration to full being, one must forsake one's attachments to this world of non-being. The death of a loved one, such as that suffered by the speaker in "A nocturnall," conventionally prepares one to do this by making obvious the transitory and ultimately painful nature of such attachments. (5) But, while the speaker demonstrates full awareness of the transient and fragile nature of life and love in this world, his continued devotion to his beloved makes him unwilling to forsake this world for the next, or human for divine love. Rather than "return[ing] to God with a whole and entire soul, without dividing or scattering [his] affections upon other objects" to undergo a spiritual resurrection (Sermons 6:362), the speaker in "A nocturnall" responds to his beloved's death by spiritually re-creating himself on the basis of this world of non-being and becomes its "Epitaph,' in which role he commemorates life amidst death and love amidst loss.

The world to which we are introduced in the first stanza of "A nocturnall" is a dismal world, a world of little light and declining life:

   The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks Send forth light squibs, no constant
   rayes; The worlds whole sap is sunke: The generall balme th'hydroptique
   earth hath drunk, Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,

Dead and enterr'd[...]. (3-8)

The darkness of this world has been attributed to the speaker's emotional state: having lost his lover to death, he projects his own dark melancholy onto the world. (6) For Donne, however, such a world is not the projection of a distraught human subject. Instead, it is the objective world, the world we all inhabit. Donne's portrayal of the world in "A nocturnall" as one in which life is "Dead and enterr'd" follows from his belief that "all earthly life is but a form of death" (Roberts 963). This belief, in turn, is rooted in his negative evaluation of change:

   So for that beeing which [man] seemes to have here now, it is a continuall
   declination into a not being, because he is in continuall change, and
   mutation, quae desinit in non esse, as he saies well; Every change and
   mutation bends to a not beeing, because in every change, it comes to a not
   being that which it was before. (Sermons 8:145)

In sum, since life in this world entails constant change, and since change is a "declination into a not being" from a higher state of being, Donne considered existence itself is a process of decay fundamentally continuous with the decay that characterizes death and interment: "[...] this whole world is but an universall church-yard, but our common grave; and the life and motion that the greatest persons have in it, is but as the shaking of buried bodies in their graves by an earth-quake" (Sermons 10:234).

The nature of life in "A nocturnall" is further elaborated in the third stanza, where the speaker, although no longer part of such life, reminisces about a time when he was, a time when he and his now-deceased lover shared the same type of interdependent existence as "all others" still do. Observing that "All others, from all things, draw all that's good, / Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have" (19-20), the speaker remembers that he and his lover drew precisely these same attributes of "beeing"--specifically life, soul, and form--from one another. The speaker remembers that he and his lover depended on each other for both soul and life, recalling that "absences / Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses" (26-27); he also remembers that he and his lover depended on each other for form, recalling that each devolved into the formlessness that is chaos when deprived of the other's attention: "[...] oft did we grow / To be two Chaosses, when we did show / Care to ought else" (24-26).

Although the speaker portrays the relationship he and his lover shared and the relationships shared by "all others" in terms of the same attributes of being, thereby emphasizing the relationships' fundamental similarity, there is a crucial difference. While he portrays the relationships of others in terms of being (life, soul, and form), the speaker portrays his and his lover's relationship in terms of loss of being (loss of life, soul, and form). This difference is explained by the two lines that separate the portrayals, lines in which the speaker introduces his own relationship as an alembic: "I, by love's limbecke, am the grave / Of all, that's nothing" (21-22). An alembic is a flask used in alchemy to hold a material as it is distilled to its essential nature. The speaker goes on to portray his relationship in accordance with this introduction, showing that while within this relationship/"limbecke" he lost being as he was distilled to the essential non-being ("the grave / Of all, that's nothing") that is the foundation of all life in the world. He thus shows that the essential nature of the being enjoyed by "all others" is the loss of being suffered by the speaker and his lover, thereby vividly illustrating the principle that, as noted above, informs "A nocturnall"--namely, that all "beeing" is in fact a "declination into a not being."

Although his love relationship distilled the speaker to the non-being that is the essential nature of all worldly being, he was not distilled to complete non-being while his lover was alive. The loss of being caused by his lover's parting would be reversed (partially (7)) by her return--only to be lost again with her next departure. Accordingly, it was not until his lover's death that the speaker descended into the profound state of non-being that is ruin: "From dull privations, and leane emptinesse / He [love] ruin'd mee" (16-17).

Thus far the speaker in "A nocturnall" has undergone a conventional alchemical reduction and lies in a "ruin'd" state analogous to the "massa confusa or alchemical chaos" to which alchemy reduces materials prior to their resurrection. (8) And, indeed, the speaker is "re-begot" (17). The method and result of this rebegetting, however, belong not to a traditional form of alchemy but to "love['s...] new Alchimie" (13). In fact, as we will see next, this new alchemy of love defines itself against the traditional, Christian form of alchemy familiar to Donne and his contemporaries.

The practice of expressing Christian belief through alchemical tropes reached its fullest development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, (9) during which period its core elements, in substance if not precise detail, were well established and widespread. (10) With regard to death and resurrection, alchemy's expression of Christian belief was predicated on a shared view of creation and re-creation. In the following passage from one of his sermons, Donne introduces this cosmogony in its Christian form: "At this time, of which this Text [Gen. 1:2] is spoken, The waters enwrapped all the whole substance, the whole matter, of which all things were to be created [...] And so the holy Ghost moving, and resting upon the face of the waters, moved, and rested, did his office upon the whole Masse of the world, and so produced all that was produced" (Sermons 9:99). This account of creation is consistent with alchemy's basic cosmogony, in which creation began with a "formless, universal substrate" (Ritchie 99)--in Donne's account, the "Masse"--out of which all things were created by being "informed, transformed or animated by soul or spirit" (Ritchie 100)--in Donne's account, the "holy Ghost." The degree to which the "substrate" has been "informed, transformed or animated by soul or spirit" varies with each type of creature, resulting in a hierarchy of being. At the top of the hierarchy is the "soul or spirit" itself--in Christian terms, God as the sovereign source of being. (11) At the low end of the hierarchy is the "universal substrate," identified with non-being. (12) Between these two extremes is any number of levels of being, depending on how one categorizes them. Donne, following convention, categorized them into the four ascending levels of stone, plant, beast, and man. (13)

Although at the top of the earthly hierarchy of being, and thus "in a nearer station to God, then any other creature, and a livelier Image of him, who is the root of Beeing, then all they" (Sermons 9:82), man is still created from the substrate, which means that he shares with all created things the tendency to devolve back into universal formlessness:

   This is Natures nest of Boxes; The Heavens containe the Earth, the Earth,
   Cities, Cities, Men. And all these are Concentrique; the common center to
   them all, is decay, ruine; only [...] that which was not made of Nothing
   [i.e., God], is not threatned with this annihilation. All other things are;
   even Angels, even our soules; they move upon the same poles, they bend to
   the same Center;, and if they were not made immortall by preservation,
   their Nature could not keepe them from sinking to this center,
   Annihilation. (Devotions 51)

Despite this natural tendency of all created things to devolve back to the universal substrate, God originally intended to maintain man forever in the original, full being given him at creation. Sin reversed this intention: "Original sinne hath induced this corruption and incineration upon us; If wee had not sinned in Adam, mortality had not put on immortality, (as the Apostle speakes) nor corruption had not put on incorruption [sic], but we had had our transmigration from this to the other world, without any mortality, any corruption at all" (Sermons 10:236). Having "sinned in Adam," man is now subject to a lifelong process of decay that begins at conception. As Donne observes with regard to himself, "I am dead, I was borne dead, and from the first laying of these mud-walls in my conception, they have moldred away, and the whole course of life is but an active death" (Devotions 96).

Although humankind is now destined to devolve into a state of physical and spiritual non-being, for Donne this did not mean that all was lost. On the contrary, he believed that "that death who destroys me, re-edifies me: Mors veluti medium excogitata, ut de integro restauraretur homo: man was fallen, and God took that way to raise him" (Sermons 4:126). Donne speaks here of Christian resurrection, but the belief that death is the way to life underlies alchemical resurrection as well. This belief is supported by the basic cosmological and ontological principles shared by Christianity and alchemy as already outlined. Since in both systems all things are created from a common substance, it follows that in both, if that substance can be withdrawn from its particular form/species, then it can be made into a more perfect form (Atwood 73). In other words, if a material can be brought to the state of nonbeing from which it was originally created, then it can be re-created, or resurrected, to an even "more perfect form,' a higher level of being (lead into gold, for example). Christian resurrection, as Donne remarks to his parishioners, constitutes an analogous process: "Thou that wast once nothing, was made this that thou art now; and when thou shalt be nothing againe, thou shalt be made better than thou art yet" (Sermons 3:97).

As we saw above, the speaker in "A nocturnal/" was reduced to a state of spiritual ruin following his beloved's death. (14) He elaborates on this state by observing that he is not man, beast, plant, or stone (30-34) (15); in other words, he belongs to none of the four levels of being that conventionally constitute creation. Having thus devolved spiritually into the complete non-being of the substrate, the speaker seems poised to undergo spiritual resurrection-to be restored to the top of creation as man redeemed, "the child of God, and [...p]artaker of the divine nature it selfe." (16)

The speaker, however, does not undergo such resurrection. In fact, he implicitly refuses to do so. While death is the way to life in both alchemy and Christianity, it is so in both only by means of an elixir. In alchemy, the elixir imparts being to a ruined material, thereby resurrecting it. In Christianity, God is the sovereign source of being and thus the only true elixir. (17) The speaker's reference in "A nocturnall" to his deceased lover as a "Sunne" that will not renew (38) recalls God, specifically Christ, in his function as elixir. In keeping with the conventional identification of being with light, Christ is often figured as the divine sun/son who does renew (both himself and others) through resurrection. (18) In "A nocturnall,' however, the speaker does not turn from his own extinguished "Sunne" to this "divine sunne of God [who] never sets" (Guibbory 97). Instead, displaying to his beloved in death the same exclusive devotion he showed her in life, the speaker refuses to acknowledge a sun, or source of light and being, greater than she. Accordingly, the speaker immediately follows his acknowledgment that his "Sunne" will not renew with the lines, "You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne / At this time to the Goat is runne" (38-39; my emphasis), thereby placing his lover in Christ's conventional position as the sun greater than the namesake planet. (19) Rather than turning toward the "divine sunne of God" and being resurrected into a state of full being and light, the speaker remains in the absolute non-being and darkness in which the setting of his human "Sunne" has left him: the midnight of S. Lucies, in which hour the entire poem takes place. (20)

Although the speaker does not turn to God and undergo conventional spiritual resurrection, he has not remained in a state of simple loss either; rather than remaining "an ordinary nothing" he has "Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown" (29). (21) In other words, having lost all being and returned to the substrate, the "first nothing" (22) the speaker continued his distillation until emerging as his own "Elixer" his own agent of resurrection:

   For I am every dead thing,
   In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
   For his art did expresse
   A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
   From dull privations, and leane emptinesse,
   He ruin'd mee, and I am re-begot
   Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not. (12-18)

This is a "new Alchimie" indeed. Turning to no exterior source of power, to no elixir of being, the speaker is resurrected by his own power--the power "inherent and resident" within himself, which, as a creature of this world, is non-being. (23) The speaker is "re-begot / Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not." (24)

These "things which are not"--"absence, darknesse, death"--upon which the speaker is "re-begot" are not in the sense that they were not given being by God, the sole source of being. They, like all "ill things, are no things [...] for, whatsoever is any thing, was made by God, and ill, sin, is no creature of his making" (Sermons 2:99). Although such "things which are not" do not have ontological reality, they do have overwhelming human reality, for they comprise the "declination into a not being" characteristic of a man's life in this world. As Donne observes, "That will not ease my soul, no more then it will ease my body, that sicknesse is nothing, and death is nothing[...]. [For s]in is so far from being nothing, as that there is nothing else but sin in us: sin hath not onely a place, but a Palace, a Throne, not onely a beeing, but a dominion, even in our best actions" (Sermons 2:99-100).

While these "things which are not" may have "a Palace, a Throne, [...] a dominion" in this world, they have no place in the next, for Christian resurrection was instituted precisely in order to overcome the "declination into a not being" brought into God's creation through sin. In the final resurrection God will destroy this privative world in fact:

   And that as thou hatest sinne it selfe, thy hate to sinne may bee expressed
   in the abolishing of all instruments of sinne, The allurements of this
   world, and the world it selfe; and all the temporarie revenges of sinne,
   the stings of sicknesse and of death; and all the castles, and prisons, and
   monuments of sinne, in the grave. That time may bee swallowed up in
   Eternitie, and hope swallowed in possession, and ends swallowed in
   infinitenesse, and all men ordained to salvation, in body and soule, be one
   intire and everlasting sacrifice to thee. (Devotions 96-97)

In spiritual resurrection an analogous destruction of this privative world must happen, only it must happen within the soul of the resurrected. The speaker of Donne's "The Second Anniversary," for example, commands his soul to undergo resurrection:

   Then, soule, to thy first pitch worke up againe;
   Know that all lines which circles doe containe,
   For once that they the center touch, do touch
   Twice the circumference; and be thou such.
   Double on Heaven, thy thoughts on Earth emploid;
   [ ............................................. ]
   This is esentiall joy, where neither hee
   Can suffer Diminution, nor wee. (435-39, 443-44)

Here the speaker commands his soul to "thy first pitch worke up againe"--that is, to regain its original, full being--and dwell in the divine realm of immutable being "where neither hee [God] / Can suffer Diminution, nor wee." In order to do so, however, the soul must first forsake this world, which is exactly what the speaker has ordered it to do:

   Forget this rotten world; And unto thee,
   Let thine owne times as an old story be,
   Be not concern'd: study not why, nor whan;
   Doe not so much, as not beleeve a man.
   For though to erre, be worst, to try truths forth,
   Is far more busines, then this world is worth.
   The World is but a Carkas[...]. (49-55)

We see, then, that the speaker in "A nocturnall" bases his resurrection on precisely that which is forsaken and abolished in Christian resurrection: this world and man's existence in it. Whereas his counterpart in "The Second Anniversary" must "Forget this rotten [...] Carkas" of a world in order to undergo Christian spiritual resurrection, the speaker in "A nocturnall" dedicates himself fully to the remembrance and commemoration of this very same world and is spiritually resurrected as its "Epitaph" (25):

   The worlds whole sap is sunke:
   The generall balme th'hydroptique earth hath drunk,
   Whither, as to the beds-feet life is shrunke,
   Dead and enterr'd, yet all these seeme to laugh,
   Compar'd with mee, who am their Epitaph. (5-9)

Rather than urging his listeners to look away from this world and toward the next, as is the case in "The Second Anniversary," the speaker in "A nocturnall" focuses his listeners' attention on this world. After introducing the "Dead and enterr'd" life of the world, and himself as its "Epitaph" the speaker opens the second stanza by addressing those who wait for "the next world": "Study me then, you who shall lovers bee / At the next world, that is, at the next Spring" (10-11). Here "the next world" is not the transcendent, immutable world of the divine; rather, it is only the cyclical renewal of this world--the return of spring and the rebirth of human love. Even after portraying in the third and fourth stanzas the pain and loss he suffered in loving another human being, the speaker does not counsel his listeners against such worldly love and transitory pleasure. Quite the contrary, he opens the final stanza by enjoining his listeners to enjoy the "summer" of this world, "Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall" (42). Ultimately the summer sun will set once more, and the "long nights festivall" of winter will return; time will claim what belongs to it, and the listeners will lose each other as surely as the speaker and his lover lost one another. However, the transitory nature of human love and the fair season in which it thrives is no reason to shun such love. On the contrary, the speaker implies that it is precisely because of its fragile nature and imminent loss that this love should be valued so highly.

While the young lovers await the return of the sun for their season of love to begin, the speaker has nothing for which to wait. Unlike the sun, which will return from her "long nights festivall," the speaker's "Sunne" will not. Accordingly, he adopts a different line of action, ordering himself to "prepare towards" his deceased lover and consecrating the present dark "houre"--that is, "the midnight of S. Lucies"--as the "eve" of his reunion with her in a darkness no less profound, the "long nights festivall" of the grave (26): "Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall, / Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call / This houre her Vigill, and her eve, since this / Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is" (42-45).

Of all the sufferings to which one is subject during life in this world, the death of a loved one is perhaps the greatest. Christian spiritual resurrection takes such loss and turns it to gain by offering the bereaved a golden realm of pure, immutable being in exchange for this leaden world--a world in which even the greatest joys and most profound loves are adulterated by change and loss. This is indeed an exchange, for as lead is consumed in the process of making gold, so this world is abolished in realizing the next. The speaker in "A nocturnall" does not respond to his beloved's death by taking part in this exchange and undergoing Christian spiritual resurrection. Instead, he spiritually re-creates himself as the voice that affirms what this exchange negates--namely, man's existence in this world, in all its darkness and non-being. This affirmation resounds in the speaker's dosing words: "midnight is." (27)

Rice University


(1) While previous studies of "A nocturnall" have illuminated various aspects of the poem, none has coherently explicated the poem as a whole. As Frost remarks, "Of all Donne's canon (with the exception, perhaps, of the Anniversaries) [...] `A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies day' [...] has been, in effect, the most resistant to critical approaches of any century or decade" (149).

(2) Some have denied alchemy's importance to understanding "A nocturnall." One critic, for example, contends that "Donne was not so naive as to believe in alchemy, and not believing, he could not base his poem directly on that particular philosophy" (Sleight 49). However, as Duncan observes, there is a crucial difference between Donne's poems that "make use of particulars of alchemical theory or practice" and those whose "figures turn on an expressed or implied opinion of the science as a whole or of its practitioners" (76, 74). In the latter group of poems, "the opinion of alchemy is the same as that expressed in numerous contemporary popular satires: that alchemy is largely imposture or self-deception, alchemists charlatans or self-gulling dupes" (74). But in the former group of poems, which includes "A nocturnall," "the ultimate, or even the apparent, truth or falsity of the concept is not of immediate moment in [Donne's] purpose. Sufficient is the fact that the concept exists as an accepted part of the mass of beliefs known as alchemy and that it can be fairly transferred from its logical connection with that science to body forth or explain a concept in another realm of thought or knowledge which is the poet's subject" (76).

Even those critics who have taken alchemy in "A nocturnall" seriously have met with little success. Frost provides a good summary of these attempts (150-53). Although she reserves her censure primarily for those belonging to the "School of Despair" (as opposed to the "School of Regeneration" whose views are closer to her own), Frost's criticism of "excerptive" readings based on anachronistic and "inexact comprehension of the relationship between spiritual and practical alchemy and of the process itself" (151) can be directed at members of both groups, as well as at Frost herself.

(3) With regard to the Christian tradition, Brunn traces this world view (emphasizing its ontological over its cosmological aspects) back to St. Augustine and ultimately to the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. With regard to the alchemical tradition, Ritchie traces this world view back to Stoic and Aristotelian principles as elaborated on by Neoplatonism. The most detailed historical treatment of this world view remains Lovejoy's seminal work The Great Chain of Being.

(4) Thus, for example, when the speaker in Donne's "The Litanie" finds himself in the same state of spiritual "ruin" as the speaker in "A nocturnall," the former turns to God for spiritual resurrection, asking Him to "come / And re-create mee, now growne ruinous" so that "new fashioned / I may rise up from [spiritual] death, before I'm dead" (3-4, 8-9).

(5) Donne observes with regard to "that man upon whom Gods hand hath been in the fosse of something, that he had before": "As the body of man is mellowed in the grave, and made fit for glory in the resurrection, so the minde of man by suffering is suppled" and thus prepared for spiritual resurrection (Sermons 4:172; my emphasis).

(6) See, for example, Welch's existentialist interpretation of the setting in "A nocturnall."

(7) Even the relative gains in being are changes in being and thus are, according to Donne's view of change presented earlier, in fact losses of being. As Guibbory notes, "Occasionally [Donne's] description of the temporal process implies that growth precedes decay[...]. Most frequently, however, Donne suggests that decline is continuous" (72). The fact that Donne viewed all change to be a real and irreversible "declination into a not being" is important when considering criticism that supports an argument for the speaker's spiritual renewal with the notion of cyclical renewal. For example, Sleight maintains that, because the speaker "has attached his feelings of despair to the symbol of temporary decline in nature, there is good reason to suppose that despair will inevitably turn into new life, just as spring must return after winter, just as the longest night must give place to day" (39). However, as we have just seen, Donne views even apparently cyclical change as not "temporary" but rather as a real and irreversible "declination into a not being."

(8) borrow these terms from Linden's description of the similarly "ruin'd" speaker of Donne's "The Litanie" (105).

(9) While alchemy's ties to spirituality date from antiquity, the use of alchemical figures to express specifically Christian content began with alchemy's revitalization in the West during the Middle Ages. Useful discussions of Christian alchemy and its history include those by Ganzenmuller, Jung, Linden, and Shumaker.

(10) The longevity and popularity of the analogy between Christ and the elixir, an analogy central to "A nocturnall" is well documented in the works of Jung and Linden.

(11) As Brunn has observed, the notion of being belongs to "a long history of attempts to explain contingent existence by reference to a necessary ground [...,] a self-sufficient, perfect, unchanging, and eternal something, identified with the Good or God" (40).

(12) Although Christian monotheism necessitates that the substrate be "existentially caused" by God and thus not be inherently evil, the substrate's defining characteristic of mutability ensured its abiding association with sin in Christian thought. St. Augustine, for example, "characterizes this material element by formlessness, itself defined as absolute mutability[.... H] e especially insists on the negative aspect of this [mutability], on its unlikeness to God, due to the nothingness from which it is drawn[.... I]f it is not bad in itself, at least it is potentially evil, to the extent to which it tends to nothingness" (Brunn 75). See also Donne, Sermons 1:289.

(13) Donne writes: "And then man, (considered in nature) is otherwise the nearest representation of God too. For the steppes, which we consider are four; First, Esse, Beeing; for some things have onely a beeing, and no life, as stones: Secondly, Vivere, Living; for some things have life, and no sense, as Plants: and then, thirdly, Sentire, Sense; for some things have sense, and no understanding. Which understanding and reason, man hath with his Beeing, and Life, and Sense; and so is in a nearer station to God, than any other creature, and a livelier Image of him, who is the root of Beeing, then all they, because man onely hath all the dedarations of Beeings" (Sermons 9:82).

(14) Although man's decay is a continual process set in motion at conception, life in this world provides innumerable catalysts, among them grief, that quicken and intensify this process. Donne mentions a few of these "infinite ways by which man arrives at ruin" (Devotions 46) in his remark that "in our quickning in our mothers womb, wee become guilty of Adams sin done 6000 years before, and subject to all those arrows, Hunger, Labour, Grief, Sicknesse, and Death, which have been shot after it" (Sermons 2:59).

(15) "Were I a man, that I were one, / I needs must know, I should preferre, / If I were any beast, / Some ends, some means; Yea plants, yea stones detest, / And love, all, all some properties invest / [...] / But I am none" (30-34, 37). Concerning this passage Sleight comments that "paradoxically it is the beasts and stones who are personified[;] they `detest and love'" (36). However, this paradox, like others in "A nocturnall," is resolved when interpreted in terms of the world view outlined here, according to which "there is no such thing as mere lifeless inert matter" since "for anything to come into existence and possess any definite character it must be in some degree informed, transformed, or animated by soul or spirit" (Ritchie 100). The animistic representation of "beasts and stones" is thus literal, not figurative.

(16) This is excerpted from Donne's characterization of spiritual resurrection as taking the man who has devolved to an "ignobler creatur[e .... ] a licentious Goat, a supplanting Fox, an usurious Wolfe, an ambitious Lion" and reforming him as "The child of God, and [... p]artaker of the Divine Nature it selfe" (Sermons 7:135).

(17) The speaker in "The Litanie" calls on God in His function as "elixir" when he asks God to "come / And re-create mee, now growne ruinous" (3-4).

(18) Donne often uses this conventional figure. For example, "And instead of that Sun, which this world had, a Sun from God; man hath had the Son of God; God hath spoken to us by his Son; God hath shin'd upon us in his Son. The whole work of Almighty God, in the Conversion [spiritual resurrection] of man, is many times expressed by this act of shining; an effectual, a powerful shining" (Sermons 4:104-05).

(19) This positioning of the lover in "A nocturnall" must be differentiated from the reference to Elizabeth Drury as the "Sunnes Sunne" in "The Second Anniversary" (4). The latter is portrayed as an instrument of God's light and being whose exemplary life facilitates the spiritual resurrection of others. As "The Second Anniversary" makes very clear, any power Elizabeth has as a "sun" is derived from God; she is merely the conduit for His being and light (518-28). The deceased lover in "A nocturnall" on the other hand, is emphatically not an instrument of God's being who facilitates the spiritual resurrection of others. She is a sun that will not renew, and the speaker's devotion to her, far from facilitating his spiritual resurrection, in fact prevents it.

(20) As the darkest hour of the year's longest night, the midnight of S. Lucies signifies not a unit of time so much as the metaphysical state of complete non-being in which the speaker was left by his beloved's death and on which, as we will see, he has since re-created himself. The primacy of the term's metaphysical over its temporal significance is supported by its appearance in both the opening and closing stanzas of the poem--a repetition that gives the impression not of signifying flowing time but of circumscribing an area, establishing a position, for the poem's speaker and his speech. Donne often used specific time-periods for their metaphysical significance; of particular interest is his use of both "midnight" and "S. Lucie's" to characterize the state of the unresurrected soul in Sermons 9:367.

(21) "If I an ordinary nothing were, / As shadow, a light, and body must be here. / But I am none" (35-37). The "ordinary nothing" to which the speaker refers is the concept of nothing as it is defined in the "ordinary" (i.e., conventional) world view so clearly evoked in the immediately preceding lines (30-34). Non-being in this metaphysics is defined as merely a privation of, or declination from, being. Here, as in so many other instances (see, for example, Sermons 6:238 and 7:360), Donne uses the figure of a shadow to convey the fully dependent nature of such non-being on being. As the elixir of the "first nothing" the speaker forwards a different understanding of non-being by claiming it as a ground for existence independent of being.

(22) The terms "substrate" and "first nothing" are not synonyms, and Donne's use here of the latter rather than the former has important implications. As we saw earlier, the "substrate" is the matter or non-being from which all things were created and to which they naturally decline. The "first nothing" also refers to such matter or non-being but as it "preceded God's first act of creation" (Grierson 38; see also Sermons 1:289). In other words, whereas "substrate" refers to non-being as it exists relative to God's act of creation and the being expressed therein, the "first nothing" refers to non-being as it exists independent of--figuratively (since time is a corollary of creation) "preceding"--these. The speaker in "A nocturnall" claims to have re-created himself on the basis of phenomena that were not created by God and that thus do not participate in being.

(23) The speaker's resurrection in "A nocturnall" is a strict inversion of Christ's as Donne presents it, for example, in Sermons 4:69 and 7:100.

(24) These two lines that appear to assert the illogical production of something from nothing, a paradox resolved when viewed from the perspective of the ontology outlined here, have consistently eluded explication (see, for example, Kermode 22).

(25) "Epitaph" must be understood here not in the narrow sense of a written inscription placed over a personal grave but rather, in keeping with the poem's depiction of the world as a common grave in which all life is "Dead and enterr'd" as anything devoted to the commemoration of that life.

(26) The "long nights festivall" in which the speaker prepares to join his lover is the same one of which a very ill Donne wrote: "Therefore hast thou, O my God, made this sicknes [...] my Eve, to this great festival, my dissolution [in the grave]" (Devotions 75-76).

(27) I would like to thank Marcia Chamberlain for her valuable suggestions with regard to this essay. I would also like to thank Frank Kermode for reading an early version of this paper and for posing a fundamental challenge to that version's structure, thus providing the impetus for its evolution to the present form. Finally, I am deeply grateful to Jane Chance for her academic guidance and support.


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Mary E. Zimmer is a Presidential Fellow at Rice University, where she is writing her doctoral dissertation on seventeenth-century British literature. She has previously published on St. Catherine of Siena in Studia Mystica and on J. R. R. Tolkien in Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review.