One of the perennial philosophies asserts that only in eternity (i.e. God, Plato’s forms, Aristotelian essences) can constancy be found. All else is subject to mutability, change as the result of time.
In Book Eleven of his Confessions, St Augustine questioned time in relation to God (the stable Truth) and His creation of the temporal world. He concluded that time – past, present and future – could be nothing more than a conscious act of human representation.
Whether or not this is true, I suggest that at least in his secular poetry, John Donne, the metaphysical English Renaissance poet, shrewdly manipulates his representations of time in order to explore ideas about constancy and mutability in new and thought-provoking ways.
One of the most interesting, at least for this time of the year, comes with his poem A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, in which Donne uses the winter solstice to help his speaker come to grips with a difficult situation.
Someone important to the speaker, likely a lover or former lover (suggested by the speaker’s address to ‘other lovers’), has died.
It is indeed a dark time.
Yet the cycle of death is now complete – ‘this time to the Goat is run’ – (i.e. at the winter solstice, the sun enters Capricorn, ‘The Goat’, in order to die and be reborn). Because ‘spring’ is connected through rhyme with ‘thing’ (‘I am every dead thing’), there is hope of regeneration not only for the sun but for the speaker as well. In turn, this will ‘fetch new lust’ (the goat being associated with the genitals and the union of male and female powers).
The desolate speaker takes solace from the next (‘summer’) solstice – ‘let me prepare towards her’ (emphasis added) for after ‘midnight’ comes the new day.
With this, Donne has effectively reset the clock and put the difficult situation into new perspective and with similar reflection, you can do the same.
For most, calendar 2020 has proven to be one of the most difficult years in decades. But with this year’s winter solstice, we all have a golden opportunity to put the past behind and bravely face the future as Jupiter and Saturn conjoin and shift from Capricorn into Aquarius. For this historic moment, let’s take our inspiration from The Sun Rising, yet another of Donne’s famous poems celebrating changing tides of time.
In this poem, the speaker is in bed with his lover and wishing this moment to continue forever, mockingly questions whether ‘to thy (‘sun’s) motions lovers’ seasons (must) run’. The speaker then suggests that if this is what the sun ‘shouldst’ think’, then the sun is wrong. If the speaker so desires, 'I could eclipse and cloud' 'thy beams' 'with a wink'. But he does not so desire and by the final stanza, he's abandoned his derisory threats and instead welcomes the sun because its job is 'to warm the world'.
On this of all days, we all do well to do the same.
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 beA Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day – John Donne
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.
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.
She's all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.The Sun Rising – John Donne