"A Lecture Upon the Shadow":
The faults of a metaphor
Liana R. Prieto (March 1998)
"A Lecture upon the Shadow" seems to be a poem signaling the inevitable decline of love, but it is not. John Donne metaphorically equates the rising and setting of the sun with a love affair. The metaphor says that love grows, reaches a peak, and then quickly declines, as does the sun in its daily course. The metaphor applies if the poem were meant to be a subtle way for the narrator to inform his lover of his pessimistic view of love. However, Donne's hopeful tone, expressed through his repeated use of the words except and if, suggests that Donne does not believe that love will inevitably die. Donne believes that the high point of love can be maintained, but this conflicts with the metaphor in that the duration of noon can never be prolonged.
The morning, noon and evening described in this poem parallel the rise and fall of a relationship based on love. The first stanza details the progression of love from its beginnings to its peak. During the first stages of love, young lovers often keep their feelings private, wanting to be sure of their love before submitting it to public scrutiny. This is what the lovers in the poem have done: "So whilst our infant loves did grow, / Disguises did, and shadows, flow / from us". (ll.10 - 11) The lovers have worked diligently under the guise of the shadows they them "selves produc'd" in order to substantiate their love.
At noon, the narrator decides to stop walking and explain to his lover his "philosophy" of love. (l. 2) The narrator points out that "now the Sunne is just above our head", and no longer do they hide under the cover of morning shadows. (l. 6) Their "love hath attain'd the highest degree" and emerged from the shadows. (l. 13) At this point, the shadows they used as disguises are invisible below them and they stand in the "brave clearenesse" of unchallenged light. The lovers, and everyone who sees them, are aware of the virtue of their love.
However, according to the metaphor, this highest form of love is short-lived because the "first minute after noone, is night". (l. 26) The shadows that once blinded others will reappear and " these which come behinde / will worke upon" the lovers, blinding them. (ll. 17 - 18) As their love declines, these new shadows represent the disguises each lover will use to manipulate the other. The narrator goes on to say that "I to thee mine actions shall disguise", warning her of the lies and secrets that are to come between them. "The morning shadows weare away, / But" the shadows that blind the lovers "grow longer all the day" until they stand in total darkness. (ll. 22 - 23) Though the lovers may attempt to deny that they are falling out of love, eventually, they will be unable to maintain their relationship.
This cyclical metaphor of love as the day applies to many a romantic relationship, but the poet undermines his own metaphor by trying to stop the cycle at its highest point. The narrator and his love have been taking a morning walk for three hours. The shrinking shadows of the morning are representative of the disguises the lovers shed. At noon, they stand together with the sun above them illuminating their love. In the day, this point is a fleeting moment and, therefore, the metaphor deems it impossible for such a love to not degenerate.
In the second stanza, despite the unstoppable, cyclical nature of the day, the poet makes a plea to his lover to extend the moment and make their love last. When he says "Except our loves at this noone stay, / We shall new shadows make the other way", he is revealing his true optimistic philosophy of love that contradicts the metaphor. (ll. 14 - 15) The narrator tells his love that the lies and disguises that could separate them are dependent on "if our loves faint". (l. 19) Every day the sun rises and sets without exception, without regard to human action or emotion. If their love were metaphorically compatible with the day, it would inevitably deteriorate. Donne, nonetheless, continues trying to repudiate his own metaphor when he writes "But, oh, loves day is short, if love decay". (l. 24) Days do not vary in length, and if love and the day were synchronous, neither would love. In direct contradiction with the metaphor, the second stanza serves as a warning of what could happen should something go wrong, not as an unavoidable pronouncement of the future.
One argument against my reading is that Donne is aware of the inadequacies of the metaphor and is informing his lover of their fate in a roundabout way. Another argument is that the choice of the day is a subconscious, but telling choice. This implies that the author is trying to maintain an optimistic view because his love is currently doing well, but knows that it will end soon. However, if either of these arguments were valid, then Donne would not have used the conditional. He did not simply put these words in the poem to sustain the rhythm and meter; he chose them because he feels that the decline of this love affair is not inevitable.
Now that the faults in the metaphor have been established, one must question Donne's choice. Why would a poet opt to use the day as a metaphor if it does not fully apply to love? The conclusion I have come to is that the morning and noon parallel the model relationship he is describing, and though he hopes the relationship will not continue to follow the metaphor, the day is still the closest thing he could think of with which to compare love. Love is an often indescribable, human emotion that can never be wholly equated with anything else. Due to the complexity of human emotion, especially love, a perfect metaphorical comparison is impossible. A better choice for Donne would have been, perhaps, to describe love not in terms of he day but in terms of itself and the other human emotions and qualities that go along with it.
True love and the cycle of the day are simply not metaphorically compatible when we examine the poet's intent. The narrator wants his love to remain at the peak it has reached, but if love follows the path of the rising sun, then it must also follow the path of the setting sun. The poet establishes a correlation between the course of the day and love and then tries to nullify it when it no longer serves his goal. The one thing that Donne makes very clear in this poem is the difficulty of finding a metaphor appropriate for describing love.