A Lecture Upon the Shadow

John Donne

Stand still and I will read to thee
A Lecture, Love, in loves philosophy
These three houres that we have spent
Walking here, Two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produced
This poem is written by John Donne.

The poet talks about the lecture of love but has named it the lecture of shadow. The poet has harped on how love proceeds through various stages.




The beginning of love has been compared with morning, and love’s aftereffects have been compared with the shadows which the light casts as it falls on objects. You must have noticed that our shadows are longer during the morning.

According to the poet, when love between two persons begins it casts a long shadow as happens in the morning light. Here, shadow is used as metaphor for various doubts and hesitations which are often present at the beginning of love. These aspersions are of our own making, the way shadows are made because of us. We know that an opaque object is necessary to cast a shadow.

But, now the Sunne is just above our head
We doe those shadowes tread
And to brave clearness all things are reduced
So whilst our infant loves did grow
Disguises did, and shadowes, flow
From us, and our cares, but it is not so.

The growing love has been compared with ascent of the sun in sky. When the sun is above our head no shadow is formed, rather the shadow is so small that it is beneath us. We literally tread on our shadows at noon. This is the peak of love when there is no space for doubt. There is complete commitment and trust between two people in love.

That love hath not attained the highest degree
Which is still diligent lest others see
Except our loves at this noone stay
We shall new shadowes make the other way.
As the first were made to blinde
Others, these which come behinde
Will work upon our selves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westwardly decline
To me thou, falsely thine
And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.

But nothing lasts forever. Love gives way to apathy, as they say familiarity breeds contempt. When the daytime proceeds towards afternoon, shadows tend to grow longer and longer. These are akin to apathy and doubts which creep up in relationships.

The morning shadowes were away
But these grow longer all day
But oh, loves day is short, if love decay.
Love is growing, or full constant light
And this first minute, after no one, is night.

When the evening comes, shadows become quite long, similar to the shadows during early morning. Like all beautiful things in life, love stays for a very short duration. Gradually, the love withers away. After the evening, comes the night, i.e. darkness. Here, night has been used as a metaphor for the end of love.




Understanding the Poem

Question 1: How do shadows before noon differ from the shadows after noon? What do the two kinds of shadow represent?

Answer: Shadows before noon get smaller as the time flies. But shadows after noon get longer as the time flies. Morning shadows represent initial hesitation and doubt in a relationship, which go away as the relationship grows. Afternoon shadows represent lack of trust and apathy which increase when the relationships start souring.

Question 2: Love is described as light. What makes the poet talk about shadows?

Answer: Love is described as light, but lack of commitment and distrust are like shadows. Life is not about light only, there is darkness as well. We get sweet and bitter experiences in life in almost equal amount.

Question 3: Comment on the use of the image of the shadows for the idea that the poet wants to convey.

Answer: The poet has marvelously used shadows to illustrate various emotions which are present in love although lack of them would make for perfect love. Shadow has been used as a metaphor for various negative feelings, like hesitation, doubt, distrust, apathy, etc.

Question 4: The poet seems to be addressing his beloved in the poem. What is the message he wishes to convey to her?

Answer: The poet wants to convey various messages regarding progression of love from initial phase to its end. The poet literally takes his lover to the roller coaster ride of demanding relationship between two people. Commitment in a relationship is not an easy affair. It takes its toll and extracts its price from the people who are in relationship.

The relationship need not be only between two lovers. It can be between two friends, siblings, parents and children, and so on.

Question 5: Instead of ‘A Lecture Upon Love’ the poet calls the poem ‘A Lecture Upon the Shadow’. What is the effect that this has on our reading of the poem?

Answer: Had it been A Lecture Upon Love, the reader could have taken is as a candy floss romance with all the effects of sugar sweet goodies of life. But the actual title, i.e. A Lecture Upon the Shadow is a giveaway that that poem is not about a life of bed of roses. It is about thorns which always come bundled with roses.

Life is full of blacks and whites with suitable amount of grey areas. Similarly, love comes along with various pains, and trials and tribulations.




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