Imagery and symbolism in Nocturnall


Alchemy equipmentThe main strand of imagery is to do with alchemy, a forerunner of modern chemistry. Literally, the object of alchemy was to discover a way of changing base metal into gold. There was a growing awareness in Donne's day that this not possible but alchemy had made a number of scientific discoveries and invented various instruments and procedures:

  • quintessence' (l.15)
  • ‘love's limbecke' (l.21), an instrument used in distillation
  • ‘Elixir' (l.29)
  • ‘properties' (l.34).

Chemical analysis

The conceit is that Donne's sense of non-being or nothingness is being chemically analysed.

‘I am by her death ... Of the first nothing, the Elixir grown' (ll.28-29). The ‘first nothing' refers back to Genesis 1:2, before the creation of the world. The hyperbole lies in the idea that this absolute nothingness has been distilled even further!

Investigating Nocturnall
  • Look at the alchemical images in lines 12-18; 21-22
    • What do you think is their meaning?
  • What is ‘an ordinary nothing' (l.35)?
    • How could such a nothing have ‘shadow, a light, and body'?

The passage of the seasons

The other central image is the passage of the seasons.

  • Although this is deep winter, spring and summer are mentioned, brought back by the sun, at least ‘the lesser Sunne', his beloved being ‘my Sunne' (l.37)
  • So we have the lovers' world again, the microcosm, which seemed outside any seasonal change in Lovers' Infinitenesse, and ironically still lies outside any change: ‘nor will my Sunne renew'
  • The line ‘Drownd the whole world, us two' (l.24) echoes the imagery in Donne's A Valediction: of Weeping
  • Ordinary lovers are bidden anticipate ‘new lust' and told to ‘Enjoy your summer all'
  • ‘the Goat' refers to the astrological sign, whilst the goat as an animal was symbolic of a lustful nature
  • By contrast, he will return to the Saint's Day, as his beloved and the saint become one person in the last two lines
  • Just as for a Saint's Day there is meant to be some service or ‘Vigill' in commemoration, so this time will be the ‘Eve' or day before his own death.

  • Look up ‘hydroptique' (l.6)
    • What sort of an image is it?
  • What is an ‘Epitaph' (l.9)?
    • In what sense does it apply to the poet?
  • Do you notice any other significant images?
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