"In whom love wrought new Alchimie": The Inversion of Christian Spiritual Resurrection in John Donne's "A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day"

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Author: Mary E. Zimmer
Date: Summer 2002
From: Christianity and Literature(Vol. 51, Issue 4)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,340 words

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When thou thinkest thy selfe swallowed, and buried in affliction[...,] Christ Jesus shall remove thy grave stone, and give thee a resurrection; but if thou thinke to remove it by thine own wit, thine owne power[...,] Digitus Dei non est hic, The hand of God is not in all this.

--John Donne, Sermons 6:78

Although there is little critical consensus concerning John Donne's "A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day,' critics do agree that the poem negotiates a relationship between the human and divine worlds and, more specifically, the loves of both worlds. In doing so, "A nocturnall" takes part in a dominant thematic pattern of Donne's poetry and helps to "illustrat[e] the way in which Donne's poetry, throughout his career, moves along a Great Divide between the sacred and the profane, now facing one way, now another, but always remaining intensely aware of both sides" (Martz 215). With regard to which side of this "Great Divide" the bereaved speaker ends facing, there is substantially more disagreement. As Emma RothSchwartz observes, "commentators are divided on whether `Nocturnall' ends in despair, hope, or stasis," adding that "a satisfactory answer requires consideration of [the poem's] liturgical and alchemical references, and upon a resolution of the poem's other cruces, both verbal and accidental, that rests on a more consistent and empirical theoretical basis than any analysis has shown to date" (89). (1)

The "more consistent and empirical" interpretive basis for which RothSchwartz calls--one that unites the Christian (though not specifically liturgical) and alchemical (2) aspects of "A nocturnall" into a coherent message while elucidating the poems many paradoxes--is provided by a world view, including a cosmogony and its entailed ontology, that in its basic structure is found in both the Christian and alchemical traditions. (3) This world view is implied throughout "A nocturnall," most centrally in its presentation of the spiritual process undergone by its speaker in alchemical terms. Such a presentation evokes a convention that is itself based on this world view--namely, that of figuring Christian spiritual resurrection in terms of alchemical transformation. Nevertheless, although the spiritual process in question is formally similar to both Christian and alchemical resurrection, in that the speaker is reduced to a state of complete non-being and then rebegot to a new existence, his spiritual regeneration is in fact based on an inversion of the "being,' and its associated values, on which such conventional forms of resurrection are based.

By reconstructing this world view underlying Christian and alchemical resurrection in "A nocturnall" this essay shows that the state of complete spiritual non-being in which the speaker lies following his beloved's death is not only a subjective state of despair but also an objective state of ontological privation: the endpoint of a sin-initiated process of decline from immutable being, identified with God, into the change or non-being of this world. This state of complete non-being or death is also the point at which the process can be redeemed through resurrection--that is, the restoration to full...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A92352196