Every dead thing

We are approaching the dead centre of winter.

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photo Andy Field, shared under creative commons

The dead centre of winter is the solstice, but before it comes the day that was for many centuries believed to be the shortest of the year, St. Lucy’s, 13th December (the error in part accounted for by discrepancies between the Gregorian and Julian calendars).

St. Lucy’s is the subject or at any rate the setting of John Donne’s extraordinarily bleak poem A nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day, Being the shortest day – the nocturnal being the vigil of the shortest day, not the day itself. Here are the first two stanzas.

Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balme th’hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Wither, as to the beds-feet life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr’d, yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchemie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
From dull privations, and leane emptinesse
He ruin’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

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Whether or not St. Lucy’s is the shortest day, it is certainly a glacial season, one perhaps in which it is apt to meditate on ‘every dead thing’. In which case you will want to drag your chilly and reluctant bones down to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, where you can contemplate the frozen remains of the mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses and giant elks which in the Ice Age called East Anglia home; or, if the mood takes you, venture into still deeper, still colder geological strata.

Cambridge_Sedgwick_Museum_detail_mammoth

The Sedgwick collection originated in Dr. John Woodward’s cabinet of curiosities – five cabinets, to be precise, of over 10,000 specimens of fossil, collected at a time when fossils were often taken to be the remains of mythical beasts (unicorns, mermaids), or cursed beasts petrified by saints, or antediluvian hominids. Dr. Woodward (1665-1728), however, was convinced these were the remains of once real creatures, as outlined in his various publications. Dr. Woodward’s original cabinets are all preserved in the museum.

The collection was expanded by Dr. Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), Woodwardian Professor of Geology at the University, who among other things bought a number of ichthyosaur skeletons from Mary Anning, the great Victorian dinosaur hunter.

AnningIchthyosaurSkull

…and often absences/ Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses. (John Donne)

The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science is on Downing Street, and is open Monday to Friday, 1000-1300 and 1400 to 1700. Entrance is free.

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