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Being the Shortest Day

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by | Dec 13, 2019

At year’s end, I experience a heightened awareness of time and light and their interplay. The low-slung sun moves over the edge of the backyard fence; it beams through an otherwise innocuous container on the windowsill, casting a light shadow of flowers on an empty table; it flattens the whole sky through the study window, making the leafless trees seem closer and somehow expectant. I tell them things they intuitively know already in some other language and calendar:

It is the 12th day of December and as they already witnessed, the last full moon of the year rose very beautifully at 12:12 a.m. this morning. That moon has different names in different cultures and geographies. The Algonquin people reportedly call it the “full cold moon” and use it as the marker for the commencement of winter. The solstice of winter, December 21st, is nine days away and the equinox point for spring is about three months beyond that. But that’s getting ahead of time and light. Until the 21st, the days will shorten and the span of night lengthen. The sun will ride slightly lower in the sky, while rising later in the morning and setting a bit later in the day. All this should stay true despite the attempted clock adjustments to save daylight, which the trees understand is preposterous. 

Between today and the solstice, there will be almost three minutes less time for us to spend on our devices (unless those are the ones we carry around in our heads and think cannot be turned off); but, if you would like it, you will have more time to consider the wisdom of trees, to practice gratitude and kindness, and relish the wonders of time and light.

I have quite a list of poems set aside for this month’s Lines of Thinking. But I have decided that there is no improving on the poem by John Donne I shared last year. (I will push the others into January or February’s submission, when there is more time in the day for you to read). So, let me first acknowledge the impeccable taste of a friend, who each year sends out to his family and friends Donne’s “nocturnal” on the “shortest day”. 

“A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day” was composed in 1637 when Donne was Dean of St. Paul’s. It uses the feast day of the 3rd-Century Christian martyr to remember his wife, Anne, who had died a decade before. As I remarked last December, I find remarkable the poem’s counter flows of emotion and image, despair and hope. It mourns and celebrates love in the season when, in northern places at least, we light candles and fires to recognize that the darkest point of the year is the start of the sun’s journey towards spring.

With the wish of true peace and happiness to you all for the remainder of this year and those that follow.

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being The Shortest Day 

John Donne

‘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.


About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.