So Donne opens one of his greatest poems, ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’. Like a slow dead march, following lines evoke not merely this dwindled light, but the withered vitality of the entire world. Yet it is the poet himself, buried within layer upon layer of surrounding darkness, who most absolutely encapsulates this fabulous nullity. Though the sun is all but extinguished, and the world’s essential sap exhausted, ‘all these seem to laugh,/ Compared with me, who am their epitaph’. Ordinary humanity, therefore, can only look on from a distance at this prodigious emotional state:
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 ruined me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.