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The Journal of English Language and Literature , Vol.60, No.1, 131 ~ 144, 2014
“Darkening the darkness”: Alchemy as Radical Negativity in Donne`s “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy`s Day, being the shortest day”
Jen Hui Bon Hoa
In “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy`s Day, being the shortest day” John Donne undertakes his most original exploration of alchemy, a privileged metaphor for the poet`s craft. As critics have noted, “Nocturnal” tends towards annihilation rather than regeneration and thus, they suggest, inverts or subverts the alchemical process. This interpretation, I contend, tells only half the story. Through a close reading of the poem, I show that Donne develops a metaphysics of absence in order to advance rather than reverse the process of alchemical distillation, ultimately to articulate a purity that transcends matter itself. Engaging with Derrida`s theories of extreme or undialectical negativity, I argue that the poet explores his grief by drawing himself further into the darkness towards an indeterminacy beyond the opposition of presence and absence, life and death. Against the convention of reading “Nocturnal” in terms of a redemptive work of mourning, I propose that, rather than seeking to return to familiarity after the experience of extremity, the poet tarries with this extreme negativity and allows his notion of existence to be transformed by it.
Key Words
John Donne, “Nocturnal,” alchemy, Derrida, negativity,영미문학, 문화연구, 비교문학, 비평이론, English and American Literature, cultural studies, comparative literature, critical theory
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