“A lecture upon the shadow” is a poem by the great poet John Donne. Though it is not really clear and no one can in certainty tell what the poet really wanted to portray, the poem is not as hard to interpret as most people really think. The use of startling metaphors and extended conceits presents the poet’s idea in a very interesting and clear manner. John Donne presents the poem in form of a ‘lecture’ as he says in line two, ‘…A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy’ (Poemhunter.com 8). He narrates a story of the love that exists between him and his lover. He symbolically uses their shadows in different times of the day to bring forth his message in such a way that it may be well understood in a clear and exciting manner. He also constantly refers to different periods of the day to illustrate the stages of love that he is undergoing with his girlfriend.
Different times of day in this poem are used as metaphor to represent the different stages of the couple’s love as it progresses. Morning is like the beginning of love when lovers have just met and their love for each other is immense. At this stage, love is blossoming. However, this love fades with time. This is clear when the author says, ‘….So whilst our infant loves did grow……..that love has not attained the highest degree’ (Poemhunter.com 8). This shows that the love grew well at is initial stages (Symbolized by morning), but may later fade.
John Donne, however, is optimistic that better times will come when their love will grow again like noon when there is no shadow. So he says, ‘…which is still diligent lest others see’ (Poemhunter.com 8). By this he meant that the flaws prevalent in their love needed a good care so that others may not learn about them. Noon therefore symbolizes a time when there is no looming danger of their love being interrupted by fears of other people’s interference, lack of trust and so forth. He knows that noon just lasts but for a short moment, and he wishes that it would last forever. However, when it comes to night everything goes wrong and love no longer exists. This is clearly illustrated by line 24, ‘But, oh, love’s day is short, if love decay’ (Poemhunter.com 8).
The poet also uses a metaphor when he says in lines two and three, ‘….walking here, two shadows went along with us’ (Poemhunter.com 8). This illustration shows that the problems faced by people in love are like shadows. The use of a shadow as a symbol of hideousness is used throughout the poem to illustrate how, like a shadow, being hideous poses problems to lovers. In the morning, when the love has just started, the couple hides their love from others. So the poet says, ‘….along with us, which we ourselves produced’. This means that the shadows were produced by the lovers themselves, i.e., they hide things from others. At noon, however, the shadows vanish and it becomes the best time for the lovers. That is why the poet says at the beginning of the poem, ‘….stand still, and I will read to thee….’ (Poemhunter.com 8). This line illustrates that noon is the perfect time for them since there are no ‘shadows’ to interrupt them in their love. At this moment there seems to be no more things to hide from each other and to other people. In other words, there are no secrets in their relationship. So they stand still and talk about their love.
The most important aspect seen in the metaphor of shadows is the transition between morning and afternoon shadows. The shadows in the morning were meant to blind other people from noticing the love that exists within the two lovers. John Donne, in line 16 says, ‘as the first were made to blind others (Poemhunter.com 8).’ Now, it’s noon. No shadows seems to blind others. The fear of the poet is that the coming shadows (noon does not last) will work against them, i.e., to blind themselves. He says, ‘…..these which will come behind will work upon ourselves to blind our eyes’ ((Poemhunter.com 8). By this, the poet means that the secrets that they will start hiding from each other are like afternoon shadows which will blind them from learning about each other. This may become a threat to their sincerity, trust and transparency, which are vital elements in their relationship.
In the afternoon, the lovers will be stepping on the same shadows which they produced in the morning. This means that the secrets the couple was hiding for others are the same secrets which they will later use to disguise themselves and keep secrets against each other. No wonder the poet starts the poem by telling his girlfriend to stand still. He perhaps wanted them to enjoy the moment and warn her of the looming danger ahead if they start to disguise themselves and hide things from each other. John Donne says, ‘And to thee mine actions disguise’ (Poemhunter.com 8). He means that there is danger if he hides his actions and their love will not work well as they anticipated since the beginning.
Throughout this poem, we see the poet as trying to rationally consider love as a struggle by the participants to outdo unseen temptations and possibilities of temptations. This can only be successful at noon when all shadows are underfoot. This too, is a metaphor. John Donne illustrates here the inconstancy and disguise that lovers tend to show when they are in love, an aspect that threatens their love. In this essence, he prefers to stop and asks her partner to stand still at noon since it is at such a time that there is no danger of secrecy and disguise represented by shadows. The author wishes that this moment may last forever because it is only then that light of love shines upon them and keeps them away from the shadows which threaten their relationship.
The lecture that the poet uses to communicate with his partner is another metaphor which brings clearly the idea that good communication and sharing of experiences, worries and fears are the pillars of a transparent relationship. This is shown by the comments on the poems of John Donne made through the web in 2006, “They enable the lovers to avoid secrets which are often viewed as shadows that cover their eyes from seeing the right things for their love [sic]”. In order for true love to blossom, there should always be truth in the undertakings, comments, propositions, arguments and standings of the people in love. These are the light that is much needed in relationships to lighten up the shadows of secrets and disguises and keep them under the feet like is the case at noon.
The author thus uses the metaphor of lecture to discuss the threats facing his love with his fiancée. These threats are discussed in form of shadows which are basically secrets that lovers hide from each other during the crucial moments of a treasured relationship. This lecture in essence, therefore, represents the author’s sincere presentation of his fear concerning the looming danger of keeping secrets in his relationship with the audience. This lecture has the power of removing doubts, disguises and suspicions. In this regard, it is considered as a perfect metaphor of a conversation that is capable of eliminating shadows. So it is, in itself, a light.
Poetry of John Donne. A Lecture upon the Shadow Analysis. 2006. Web. June 18, 2012.
Poemhunter.com. John Donne Poems. Classic Poetry Series, 2004. Print. Web. June 18, 2012.