Structure and versification in Nocturnall

A Nocturnall upon St.Lucies day consists of five 9-line stanzas. Donne employed the 9-line stanza also in Twicknam Garden and A Valediction: of Weeping, but the rhyme scheme used here is just slightly different from the latter poem, being abbacccdd.

  • Each stanza ends in an iambic pentameter couplet, giving more of a sense of finality than is usual.

  • Each stanza shortens in the middle, the fifth line being only an iambic trimeter, often forming a sense break, too.

The overall stanza pattern, therefore, is:

  • A strong beginning

  • A subdued centre with some break of thought, moving to

  • A stronger conclusion.

Dramatic changes of rhythm

It is the rhythms of the poem that critics have noted in particular. One critic notes an ‘elegaic slowness ... like hammer-blows' which die away to the centre of the stanza, then increase in volume into ‘numbing thuds'. Certainly, the stanza form does allow for dramatic rhythmic changes. For example, in stanza 4, the repetition of ‘Yea plants, yea stones' followed by ‘All, all ...'. The last line of the poem certainly can be made to sound like a ‘numbing thud:

Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is.

Investigating Nocturnall
  • What is the effect of ending a poem on the word ‘is'
  • Look at some examples of lists of words, such as‘absence, darkness, death'
    • What is their rhythmic effect?
  • Examine the balance of monosyllables andpolysyllables
    • Do you notice anything interesting?
  • Compare A Nocturnall upon St.Lucies day with Twicknam Garden
    • Which seems the more powerful expression of melancholy and grief?
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