Out With The Old: A Nocturnal Upon St Lucie's Day

Out With The Old: A Nocturnal Upon St Lucie's Day

No one will judge me censoriously, I think, if I say that it has been an annus horribilis this year. In many ways, it continues to be for a whole slew of reasons, many of which I prefer not to discuss right now but a near-death experience for me and the dreadful loss of my beautiful younger brother, Derm, just 48 when first struck down were chief among them. What I am free to say, though, is that medically, this year has been a challenge, the least challenging of my ordeals, but a challenge nonetheless. I am just recovering from one knee operation, am waiting for another, there are serious problems with my kidneys, possibly congenital, and recovering from a stroke that I seem to have had during an emergency heart bypass operation has not been easy; it caused me aphasia, never a good thing for a writer, and memory problems as I search for facts I once knew that I knew. It's to do with the destruction of synapses, apparently, though with luck, I will form new neural connections to access the files, which I am told are unlikely to be permanently corrupted.

By Gustave Doré, French artist and
wood-engraver, 1832 – 1883
It was also a year of some romantic calamities and personal heartbreaks. Still, never complain, never explain. On the plus side, I am off to Cuba in ten days or so with suitcases packed with essential products that will mitigate some of the harshness caused by the spiteful 'Bloqueo' by the US that only inflicts misery upon those least able to endure them. It's a small thing, a drop in the ocean, but a good way to avoid self-pity and focus on helping others where possible.

So on this, St Lucy's Day and the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, the sadness is tempered with the knowledge that everything has its own time, and soon will come rebirth and renewal. One beautiful passage in the Bible is in the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes 3, written between 400 and 200BCE, and attributed, probably incorrectly, to Solomon, left:

To everything there is a season,

and a time for every purpose under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to break down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to count as lost,

a time to keep and a time to discard,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.


Like much of that found in the Bible, it is consoling, reassuring and full of wisdom. For me, however, a more affecting musing on the meaning of the winter solstice comes from the English metaphysical poet, John Donne (above), 1572 – 1631. It follows the death of one of his many lovers (despite being the Dean of St Pau's, he was a randy old goat) who had passed, and the loss and suffering he articulates speaks to us as strongly now as when he dipped his quill in ink and through tears, scratched out the words on parchment. It is called 'A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being The Shortest Day'. Enjoy...

'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.