The Shortest Day

TIS the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;

 Thus begins the great metaphysical poet John Donne’s “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day“, which relates the poet’s despair at the death of loved ones. It was probably written in 1627 when both his friend Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and his own daughter Lucy Donne died.

If someone remarks that the shortest day of the year is, in fact, the winter solstice which falls on December 21st (or 2nd depending on your position on the globe) then it’s because the choice of the 13th of December, Saint Lucy’s day, is due to the changes wrought by the Gregorian calendar which later succeeded the Julian calendar with the “loss” of ten days. But surely Saint Lucy, the Saint of light, is the most appropriate figure to commemorate on this saddest day of the year when the sun seems almost to be eaten up by the winter night and where we hope, like our prehistoric ancestors, to live to see again a new spring “since this both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.”

Donne’s remarkably beautiful poem reminds one that winter remains very much a time of death in nature, of resigned reflections on life, of hope of new light coming into the world. Certainly, in my experience, more people, especially the older ones that I know, seem to shed off their mortal coil at this time of year at an alarming rate. And when one is living in a small mountain community those harbingers of one’s own inevitable meeting with the grim reaper, the death announcements pasted by the local undertaker, seem ever present.

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Such is the example of Rita Pazzaglia, sister-in-law of Georgia who used to run our local shop and make delicious bread in the wood-oven at Longoio (a tradition since continued by a bright new pair of ladies, one of whom is now engaged to the wood-cutter’s son).

Rita’s funeral took place yesterday afternoon at San Gemignano’s parish church and the funeral cortège then wended its way to the cemetery at Mobbiano where there is the family’s mausoleum. After the entombment our parish priest cut this lonely figure as he walked home.

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Rita was a lady I knew quite well since not only had she been a primary school teacher at the old school at San Gemignano (now privately owned by a returnee emigrant to Australia), and not only had she been on the committee of the Bagni di Lucca branch of the Università della terz’età (University of the Third age where I have given lectures for the past six years) but she was also a poet who was very well considered by Bagni di Lucca’s greatest living poet (and former Mayor) Mario Lena..

I have beside me a copy of her collection “Emozioni” (Emotions) published in 2002 with Mario’s introduction. In it he praises Rita’s almost proustian recollections of memories, her evocative descriptions of nature and her quite original musicality. Re-reading the book I find it a touchingly melancholic testimony of past times by a lady who had seen nine decades. Now that she is gone I have only this book to remind me of the life of a local person whose horizons and sensitivities extended well beyond the common spheres. Here is one poem picked at random from the slim volume:



The girl is charmingly

bowed over the piano,

with her fingers open,

just resting

on its keys as

if to caress them.

Then the musical conversation

bursts out, unrolls


compact notes, short and leaping

chase each other

to return again

a little ‘more gently and persuasively

almost as if to better tie itself

to that final melody,

so slow and enveloping

that it seems to linger

in every corner of the room

remaining there

even when the girl,

before moving on to something else,

absorbed, rests herself.


Returning home, that late afternoon and evening were marked by the most beautiful colours I have seen this month of December. Gazing in this timeless landscape I, too, felt transported by unfathomable emotions.


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