Enda O’Doherty writes: At five past four this afternoon I finally gave up the battle and turned on the lights. December 13th, I’m sure I have little need to tell you, is St Lucy’s Day, a feast commemorating the third/fourth century Christian martyr Lucy of Syracuse. Like many young Christian girls at the time, Lucy was not only virtuous but also very beautiful, not to mention being of noble family, and was consequently being horribly pestered by a pagan suitor who couldn’t wait to get his filthy hands on her, even though she had secretly decided to dedicate her virginity to God.
Through some misunderstanding or miscommunication, her mother, however, had managed to contract for her to be betrothed to the obnoxious pagan, and with a fat dowry to boot. Meanwhile, Lucy had however prevailed upon her mother, after she was miraculously cured of a bleeding disease, to give away most of her possessions and patrimony to the poor. The pagan of course didn’t like this one little bit and denounced Luce to the authorities as a Christian. When the guards came to arrest her and take her away, (it is said), they were unable to budge her, even when they hitched her up to a team of oxen. They then decided to set fire to her on the spot, but the fire wouldn’t take. She was finally dispatched by a sword stuck into her throat.
In another tradition Lucy is said to have gouged out her own eyes as their beauty was attracting unwelcome attention from a suitor, and thus she is honoured as the patron saint of sight and light and eyes and eye illnesses (a reason perhaps why the ocularly afflicted James Joyce named his daughter Lucia). In a sixteenth century painting by Domenico Beccafumi, Lucy appears to be offering her eyes on a plate to the viewer, while at the same time still having them in her head: perhaps it is a miracle.
St Lucy is still commemorated in Italy and in the Lutheran tradition in Scandinavia and Scandinavian-settled areas of North America as a bringer of light in darkness. Indeed St Lucy’s Day was, before the Gregorian calendar reform, the shortest day of the year. John Donne’s famous poem “A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day” seems to be, as well as a typically metaphysical meditation on the day, a memorial for and moving tribute to his dead wife. Like many of Donne’s poems, which I studied for A-levels fifty years ago, its difficult, learned imagery had to be laboriously explained to us by our teacher. (We found other Donne poems, like “The Sun Rising”, or “To his Mistress Going to Bed” – “O my America! my new-found land!” ‑ more immediately appealing.) Still the poem’s rhythms have remained with me and bring some comfort in these short days.
A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day
’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.