St Lucy's Day
Here in the UK after weeks of depression a kind of blitz mentality seems to be emerging. Yes, we're poor; yes, there is nothing but uncertainty; yes, the weather's miserable—cold, abysmally dark, wet with a stinging wind—on this day when we celebrate the return of the light (St Lucy's day used to fall at the solstice until the calendar correction of 1582), but there is an irrepressible mirth in the air.
The crowds are out looking and rejoicing, if not buying, and in the covered market holly and tinsel adorn every nook and cranny. The butchers there are in full holiday fig, with every kind of game hanging in the cold air—red deer, pheasant, geese, turkey, duck—and, today, a wild boar. The weather forecasters are becoming increasingly literary and it won't be long until one of them uses "light squibs" in his or her forecast (see below).
Today I came into the library as usual on opening, and as I sat down at my desk under the coffered and brightly painted ceiling of Duke Humfrey's, a brass choir started playing carols out in the Broad. As I write, at this very moment, the skies have opened and the rain has changed from a light drizzle to a torrent, yet the brass choir plays on undeterred, surely a metaphor for our times.
Paradoxically the message of Christmas, communicated through these carols—again as I write the choir is playing "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"—is one of silence:
The carol “It came upon the midnight clear” states the problem with devastating clarity, if only we will pay attention. “The world in silent stillness lay / To hear the angels sing.” For it is only in silent stillness that we can hear them, echoing the silent Word. This song has never stopped, the hymn tells us, but we are so lost in Babel, the kingdom of noise, that the prophecies concerning the nations go as yet unfulfilled. Instead, “Beneath the angel-strain have rolled / Two thousand years of wrong.” The trammeled poet then cries, “O hush the noise, ye men of strife / And hear the angels sing.” He knows full well that it is only when we learn silence that we are able to join the angelic chorus, to “. . . .give back the song/That now the angels sing.”
In this season of silence I am probably going to be out of internet range from December 21 until 6 January; the places I am going are somewhat Luddite. So please forgive me if I don't post again until Epiphany, though I will try to do so.
May all of you have a most blessed holiday season, and may light scatter the darkness before your path.
A NOCTURNAL UPON ST. LUCY'S DAY,
BEING THE SHORTEST DAY.
by 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,
Compared 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.