"A Lecture Upon the Shadow"

Sep 6, 2021
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Love is a popular topic in poetry. We have often turned to poetry for insights on love. The most popular poems about love are perhaps the Sonnets written by William Shakespeare. John Donne’s poem is reminiscent of a Shakespearean Sonnet, in its use of a volta. However, “A Lecture Upon The Shadow” impresses Donne’s ultimate view of love through his use of irony and paradox in the poem, which differentiates it from even the best poems about love. Although at first, the poem “A Lecture Upon The Shadow” uses the day as a symbol for love, its failure to sustain a positive image of love, as the narrator hoped, ultimately symbolizes the impossibility of capturing the essence of love in one metaphor.

John Donne’s “A Lecture Upon The Shadow” is written in the form of a lecture meant for the speaker’s lover and the reader. The speaker talks about the shadows that kept their love private at the beginning stage. The speaker equates noon as the peak of their love, when it is revealed and has no secrets. In the second stanza, the speaker’s outlook shifts. The first line of the stanza expresses hope that “our loves at this noon stay”—without secrets. The speaker prefaces the incoming pessimism with hope. In this stanza, the shadows transfer to the front of the pair and grow longer. The shadows that initially protected their love from the public, now blinds the couple. With the shadows growing longer, the couple starts keeping secrets from each other. The last line of the poem concludes that love is a fleeting moment, as love can quickly deteriorate.

The speaker in the poem appears confident in his chosen metaphor in the first stanza. However, as we go through the second stanza, his confidence seems to deteriorate. Although his metaphor, the day, does not waver in its cycles of morning, noon, afternoon, and night, the speaker speaks of love’s deterioration only in hypotheticals. When the speaker opens the second stanza with “[e]xcept our loves at this noon stay, (Stanza 2; Line 1)” is the moment when he realizes the failings of his chosen metaphor. This signals the volta or the shift in perspective required when writing Shakespearean Sonnets. For us, the readers, the metaphor may be considered accurate—that love is fleeting, and will deteriorate at some point—but the speaker, who is at the peak of their infatuation, refuses to acknowledge this truth.

Although the speaker is in love and views love in a positive light, his choice of metaphor, meant to be a positive one as well, inevitably reveals their true perspective on love. However, as the speaker proceeds with their lecture on the philosophy of love, their metaphor crumbles further. The speaker realizes the paradox brought about by their metaphor in the second stanza. The speaker was unable to prevent the pessimistic view of love to come through:

"If our loves faint, and westwardly decline,

To me thou, falsely, thine,

And I to thee mine actions shall disguise. (Stanza 2; Lines 6-8)"

So, to get out of the paradox, they attempt to turn the metaphor into a positive one:  “[b]ut oh, love's day is short, if love decay. / Love is a growing, or full constant light.” Still, the speaker fails, as they conclude that “[a]nd his first minute, after noon, is night. (Stanza 2; Line 13)”

Irony is a literary device wherein the use of words to express the opposite of what was said. The irony in the poem is embedded in the paradox in the metaphor chosen by the speaker. His use of hypotheticals about their love reveals that they do not fully believe that they will be able to maintain the high noon of love. While he uses the hypotheticals to keep his metaphor from becoming pessimistic, it becomes ironic as it confirms the speaker’s hidden beliefs about love. Furthermore, the speaker seems to have a clear picture of what will happen to their love after it reaches its peak.

These projections affirm that the speaker has indeed been thinking about the decline of their love. Although he says he hopes that their love will stay at noon, it is evident that be knows that deterioration—or the arrival of evening—is inevitable.

Another analysis I came across while writing this literary analysis of “A Lecture Upon The Shadow” is how it demonstrates the inadequacies of human language, in this case of metaphors, to completely capture the essence of love. Poems may have been able to capture some aspects of love, but they never successfully convey its full essence. Like the speaker’s metaphor, numerous other metaphors can often be interpreted in a pessimistic way. Indeed, the concept of love is fleeting, and it is capable to transcending human expectations. As such, it is futile to attempt to capture and convey its full essence.

John Donne’s “A Lecture Upon Shadows” is a poem that contains numerous layers. On the surface level, it appears to be another poem making a grand statement about the philosophies of love. However, upon further analysis of the poem, as conducted to complete the steps to write this literary essay, Donne does not attempt to make any grand statements—only that to do so is futile.  

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