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Lines of Thinking - December 2018: Winter Solstice

“Lines of Thinking" is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. 

December, 2018

Winter Solstice, December 21st, is a little more than a week away and with it will come the (almost) full cold moon. The next time the Solstice and the full moon will be this close is 2094, so I thought it worth mentioning in case you are already planned out that far ahead and this is your last opportunity.

The solstice in December is the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere (and Summer in the Southern). It is day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the year. In Yellow Springs, OH, that will be 9 hours, 21 minutes and 46 seconds. Thereafter each day will grow longer: December 22nd by 1 second, the 23rd by 5 seconds, the 31st by 35 and so on until the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year six months later, which is 5 hours and 39 minutes longer.

For this month’s Lines of Thinking, I am grateful to a friend, who each year sends out John Donne’s beautiful “nocturnal” on the “shortest day.” Written in 1637 when Donne was Dean of St. Paul’s, the poem uses the feast day of 3rd Century Christian martyr St. Lucy, to remember his wife, Anne, who had died a decade before.

The counter flows of emotion and image, despair and hope in the poem are remarkable to me. 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 gratitude and the wish of true peace to you all.  

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.


“Lines of Thinking," 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.