Commentary on Nocturnall

Stanza one

Gloomy Forest, photo by JovanCormac, available through Creative CommonsThe scene is quickly set. It is the midnight just before the shortest day of the year – a time of deepest gloom, when the whole of life seems to have been sucked back into the earth. Even so, compared to how the poet feels, ‘all these seem to laugh'.

Stanza two

Donne moves on to explore the metaphysics of nothingness. In stanza 2 he claims he is ‘A quintessence even from nothingnesse'. A quintessence is a five-fold distillation, and, in contemporary chemistry, was reckoned the purest attainable. His emotional state is vividly portrayed: he feels nothing; he is nothing - utterly, completely.

Stanza three

In the third stanza, Donne thinks back to previous separations. The little world of the lovers was temporarily broken by such absences, reducing them to corpse-like states, zombies.

Stanza four

Now the absence is permanent. And it is marked emotionally in the complete absence of any feeling. Donne feels he simply does not exist. He is not even an ‘ordinary nothing'. In hyperbole which is typical of him, he has to be extraordinary and unique even in his ‘nothingness'.

Stanza five

In the last stanza, Donne sadly bids living lovers anticipate the spring and new life, while he feels his only future is to ‘prepare towards her', that is, prepare himself for his own death. There will be no spring for him. The poem finishes in a circular movement, at ‘the dayes deep midnight'.

Investigating Nocturnall
  • Read carefully through A Nocturnall upon St.Lucies day
    • Collect together words and phrases in the poem that suggest
      • nothingness
      • isolation
    • Can you find the links between each of the stanzas?
    • To whom is the poem addressed?
      • How would the poem differ if it were addressed to the dead person?
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