On June 11, 1594, Edmund Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle in Ireland. Various external factors might have prompted the selection of that date, but it is at least probable that the poet himself chose the day for its symbolic resonance. The feast of St. Barnabas (June 11) coincided with the summer solstice in the old calendar, and Spenser stresses this fact in his Epithalamion written for the occasion:
This day the sun is in his chiefest height,
With Barnaby the bright,
From whence declining daily by degrees.
He somewhat loseth of his heat and light.
When once the Crab behind his back he sees.
But for this time it ill ordained was,
To choose the longest day in all the year.
And shortest night, when longest fitter were;
Yet never day so long, but late would pass. (478)
Spenser might pretend to regret the proportionate shortening of the night, but he offers the complaint at face value. A wedding at the winter solstice (St. Lucy's day) would, at the moment it protracted the pleasures of the wedding night, also have surrounded its consummation with images of sterility and death.
These are the very images that Donne marshals at the start of "A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day, being the shortest day," a poem set at a midnight both horological and sidereal:
'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; (72)
If Donne begins his poem at a point in time diametrically opposed to Spenser's, then perhaps we need to carry the antithetic pattern further and notice how the enfeeblement of the sun's "light squibs" recalls and cancels the brilliant stars in the Epithalamion: "And ye high heavens, the temple of the gods / In which a thousand torches flaming bright / Do burn, that to us wretched earthly clods / In dreadful darkness lend desired light" (482). Spenser here conceives the stars as hymeneal torches, replications of the "bright taed" by which Hymen earlier led his masque.
The Epithalamion is unusual (if indeed it is not unique) in being written by the groom, and it was published in 1595. Is it not conceivable that, on the occasion of having to mourn his wife's death in 1617. Donne turned to this radiant affirmation of conjugal love in all its festive summer brilliance, taking it as an archetype of human happiness to be set in contrast to the archetypal misery of his bereavement. This is mere speculation of course, but as John Carey has pointed out,
readers prepared to take lyric poem,, as works of imagination have felt that "A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day," which mourns the death of a loved woman. must have some factual basis. To feel so is naive. Wordsworth, after all, needed no actual death to prompt him to mourn his Lucy. But if Donne's Lucy poem is about a real dead woman, then his wife is the only candidate worth considering. She alone, of the women we know he knew, involved him deeply enough to inspire this desolate utterance. (92)
Quite so. But if Ann is indeed the subject (and I have no doubt that she is), why should a poem so immediate and raw in its present of grief be dated December 13? (Ann had died on August 15, 1617.) The answer, I submit, is that Donne had Spenser's Epithalamion in mind and needed to match its documentary dating by the summer solstice with a symbolic invocation of the shortest day of the year. I propose therefore, that we regard the "Nocturnal" as an anti-epithalamion, a poem about solitary survival rather than procreative communion.
We have seen how Donne stresses the attenuation of strength and brilliance in the sun. He is equally emphatic about the sterility of landscape, evoked by the general depression of nature's sustaining liquors: "The world's whole sap is sunk." Compare the vegetative abundance of Spenser's Epithalamion:
Bring with you all the nymphs that you can hear,
Both of the rivers and the forests green
And of the sea that neighbors to her near,
All with gay garlands goodly well beseen.
And let them also with them bring in hand
Another gay garland
For my fair love, of lilies and of roses,
Bound truelove-wise with a blue silk riband.
And let them make great store of bridal posies, (471)
The epithalamion, as its generic title implies, centers on the marriage bed: "Now night is come, now soon her disarray, / And in her bed her lay" (479). In contrast, Donne focuses on a deathbed which is also a cosmic catafalque: "The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk, / Wither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk" (72). Whereas Spenser stresses generation and continuity ("That we may raise a large posterity"-482), Donne forges conceits of deletion and depletion, and begetting becomes a species of uncreation: "I am re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not." The Epithalamion, relating the various time cycles to the act of generation, begins with dawn, Donne's "Nocturnal" with the extinction of light.
The last stanza provides further extensions of this antithetic rhythm. Here Donne invokes the Goat as Spenser had the Crab, and goes on to bracket a forthcoming summer of love from his consciousness:
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 Von,
Enjoy your summer
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 years, and the day's deep midnights. (73)
A prothalamion turns upon the anticipation of marriage and all its attendant blessings, and indeed this trope occurs also in the more immediate epithalamion. In Spenser's version, for example, the poet cries, "Ah when will this long weary day have end, / And lend me leave to come unto my love?" Donne recalls this anticipatory element in a sort of Liebestod ("Let me prepare towards her") and also seems to allude to an anonymous Latin poem, the Pervigilium Veneris. by recalling the wakeful anticipation of love (cras amet qui nunquam amavit--348). But instead of the vigil of a sleepless groom, he substitutes the vigil, or wake, of a widower.
I began this note by saying that Donne alludes to Spenser's autobiographical happiness and at the same time inverts it in his autobiographical unhappiness. Having begun by assuming that the poem deals with the death of Ann Donne, I might risk a charge of circularity by suggesting that, if the parallels I have noted are plausible., then Ann,, candidacy as the subject of the poem must receive a certain boost. Spenser was writing about his wife; ergo Donne must be writing about his spouse in turn.
Catullus, Tibullus and Pervigilium Veneris. 1913. Rev. and rpt. London: William Heinemann, 1962.
Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. London: Faber, 1981.
Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A. J. Smith Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
Spenser, Edmund. Books I and II of The Faerie The Mutability, Cantos and Selections from the Minor Poetry, Ed. Robert Kellogg and OliverSteele. New York: Odyssey. 1965.
By RODNEY STENNING EDGECOMBE, University of Cape Town