The shortest day, remember those whose days were too short.

St Lucy – whose day this is

Each year my blog marks the shortest day of the year with a post and this year I have got  an interesting reminder from Stuart Reynolds that though this is the shortest day, it is not the day with the latest sunrise.

This is a day for me, when I remember the dead with John Donne, William Shakespeare and Andrew Marvell. These are three poets who I come back to 45 years after I started reading them at school.

nocturnal 4

‘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.
Donne’s contemplation on the death of his love, is written with such energy and wit that it belies his stated position. Thought Donne is “none”, his poem is my inspiration this and every dead day of the year.
1621, Donne was appointed the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. I passed his statue as I used to go to work. I think of his lecherous smile (for Donne wasted his inheritance on whoring).
nocturnal 3
The bust of him outside St Paul’s Cathedral shows his head turned to the east, to the place where he was born.
John Donne
But the East is where the Holy Lands are. They are a place of resurrection. And just as John Donne’s memorial statue rose from the ashes of St Paul’s Cathedral, burned in the Great Fire of 1666, so his poetry and sermons live again, four hundred years after his death.
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time

William Shakespeare (who lived next door to where I write this blog)

Donne’s done – but I’m not!

I think of Donne each 21st December since the first time I read the Nocturnal (when I was 15).

As you get older, you see death closer- both for yourself – and with others. The good we do outlives, I am not Donne – but nor am I done.


nocturnal 2

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.  (Marvell)



About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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2 Responses to The shortest day, remember those whose days were too short.

  1. Mark Meldon says:

    Thanks for this, Henry.

  2. Steve Mills says:

    Fascinating information there about sunrises and sunsets around the shortest day, Henry (and Stuart), but you’re not going to win fact of the week with that. Not when this was the week when so many of us heard for the first time that there’s not one bridge over the Amazon river over the whole of its length!

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