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The Pragmatic Force of Negation in A Nocturnall Upon St.Lucies Day".

Byline: Sameera Abbas and Rubina Rahman

: Abstract

Focusing on the use of negative markers their pragmatic force and meaning-making potential and informed by the concepts of text-word theory schema theory overt and covert negation and affirmative juxtaposition this paper takes John Donne's poem A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucies Day" as a specific example to show the pragmatic function of negative markers (Pagano 1994; Nahajec 2009) in the poem. The main objective is to ascertain how the use of these concepts can help us understand the role of the pragmatic force of negation in creating meaning.

Keywords: Negation affirmation; pragmatic force Donne Text World Theory


Negation is an important cognitive phenomenon of human language. Being the conceptualization of something that does not have material existence negation is more difficult to process cognitively than affirmation since negatives cannot be realized without the knowledge of their affirmatives. Negatives are formally and interpretationally marked with respect to affirmative sentences" (Swart 2006:198). Negation consequently is semantically fuller and more complex than its more basic affirmative opposites. Negatives stand as marked in relation to the unmarked affirmatives. It is a mental process added by language users and there is thus more semantic content in a negative sentence than in the corresponding affirmative' (Miestamo 2009:225). Negatives are also seen as derivatives of the affirmatives in both their semantic content and their pragmatic scope: pragmatic and psycholinguistic studies of negation have demonstrated that negation

might have a greater number of effects they all however have shown to share a common feature. They all seem to mostly operate on an affirmative concept so that that concept (X" in Not X") undergoes some modification while being negated' ( Goira et al 2010:238).

Although syntactic and morphological studies of negation abound such is not the case as far as studies on the pragmatic force of negation is concerned. Hence in this paper we analyse A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucies's Day" a very complex poem by John Donne to explore the meaning making potential of negation in language using Nahajec's (2009) and Pegano's (1994) models.

Pragmatic Force of Negation

Exhaustive work has been done on the syntactic and morphological properties of negation. However recent research is now more focused upon its pragmatic function. Nahajec in her paper Negation and the creation of implicit meaning in poetry" (2009) has investigated the pragmatic function of negative triggers in discourse. Applying Werth's text-world theory she explores the meaning making potential of negative triggers in a text within cognitive stylistic approach. Her analysis comprises an evaluation of negation in three poems from the point of view of the cooperation that takes place between the reader and the writer to make the text meaningful. She considers negation as a pragmatic tool rather than just an indicator of a semantic relation. Negation is also seen as context dependent phenomenon because the denial of a proposition is possible only when it is conceptualized.

The conceptualization of a proposition is a cognitive process in which the hearer or the reader processes the semantic content of the proposition as well as its context of use. The context includes both the local context i.e. of the preceding text as well as the larger context of social and cultural knowledge shared by the writer and the reader. Another argument that is asserted in the paper is that negation not only denies a proposition but also triggers and defeats expectations creating implicit meaning (Nahajec 2009:110-117). In the discussion on her theory and method Nahajec (2009:111) explains cognitive stylistics " quoting Gavin and Steen (2003) " as a branch of stylistics that explains linguistic choices from a cognitive stance and the mental processes that are employed in recovering meaning from both literary and non-literary texts.

Again quoting Gavin and Steen (2003) she asserts the relationship that holds between meaning and knowledge and that in a cognitive stylistic approach mental representations are generated based on linguistic triggers and the reader's background knowledge (p.112). This implies that in a negated proposition the meaning is not simply conveyed by the propositional content of the negated proposition but also by the discourse context that triggers its intended meaning. In this sense negation generates an implied meaning rather than an explicit one. Nahajec considers this implied meaning in Gricean (1975) terms as implicature" (p.113). To understand the significance of such an implicature one would require an understanding of the Gricean cooperative principle.

Nahajecs explanation of the text-world theory (Werth 1999) includes a three level discourse architecture: the discourse-world level the text-world level and the sub- world level (2009:116). The discourse world includes the participants (the writer/reader or the speaker/hearer) and the personal and cultural background knowledge they bring to the discourse. The text world involves the mental representations of the world created through the combination of text and the background knowledge. This according to Werth is a conceptual space created between the writer and the reader (Werth 1995:53). The text world would be the world peopled with characters entities objects and actions.

The third level is the sub world level which departs from the parameters of the text world. This departure can be of three kinds:

Deictic: departures from the basic deictic signature' of the conceptual world e.g. flashbacks direct speech windows onto other scenes.

Attitudinal: notions entertained by the protagonist as opposed to actions undertaken by the protagonist in the discourse.

Epistemic: Modalised propositions expressed either by participants or by characters. (Werth 1999:216; as cited by Nahajec 2009:117).

Nahajec considers the epistemic departure as crucial to the concept of negation. According to her the sub-world acts on the expectations set up in the text world. Along with that the sub-world is a conceptualization of an unrealized world incrementing to the text driven mental representations of the discourse (2009:117).

Pagano (1994) makes a distinction between overt and covert negation. According to her overt negative is one that has a formal marker of negation such as no' not' nowhere' whereas a covert negative is a proposition that expresses a negative meaning but has a positive form; e.g. I forgot' I didn't remember' and other similar expressions (p. 250). Pagano also discusses the reason for denials in written texts:

whenever a writer feels that the text may raise a doubt or leave a question unanswered s/he tries to provide the information s/he thinks the reader is expectingtherefore in cases where the information is non-existent the writer can report that by means of denials of what was expected. (1994:253) She furthers the argument by saying that the denial of a proposition occurs only when the proposition is plausible or expected in the context of discourse.

Schema is another important aspect of negation discussed by Pagano (1994:257- 258). Denials are intrinsic to schemata because schemata in a discourse create the expectations that can be denied. The denial of a proposition can be identified only when it is part of the concerned schemata.


St. Lucie also known as St. Lucy and St. Lucia is a saint usually celebrated by Lutheran Nordic people. Until as late as nineteenth century Scandinavians believed that the 13th of December was the longest night of the year occurring at the same time as Winter Solstice. This belief was popular perhaps due to the great difference in daylight hours at the time of seasonal transitions. St. Lucie is then seen as a saint of cold and winter (with association of desolation and despair) and the struggle between light and darkness physically as well as metaphysically. She is also considered the patron saint of the blind (Wikipedia 2013).

In this poem John Donne mourns the death of his beloved on St. Lucies's Day 13th December considered as the shortest day of the year. Donne describes nature that seems lifeless and gloomy and compares his own condition with it. He sees himself as an epitaph on the tomb of dead nature. He has lost all interest in life so much so that he seems to have lost all sense of identity. He considers himself as the essence of nothingness. The analysis here focuses on how the poet has used overt and covert negation in the poem to bring about the concept of nothingness". The use of negative indicators in the poem has a pragmatic function in triggering a conceptualization of being" or presence" and through the binary opposition of the positive and the negative he has been able to create certain expectations in the mind of the reader which he denies in the later part of the poem.

A text world is established with the help of negative triggers and is linked with the poet's and consequently with the reader's state of mind. He uses the parallel affirmatives to establish the negation that he is presenting in the text.

Looking at the title A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucies's Day it appears that Donne seems to be preparing the reader for the contrast between binary opposites. The word nocturnal' pertains to night. The title brings in the combination of day and night and a keen reader would notice the contradiction. Day brings positive connotations in comparison with night that is cognitively more negative. Day relates to presence of light whereas night pertains to its absence. As such from the very beginning of the text we face the binary opposition between presence and absence creating an expectation in the mind of the reader that night and day light and darkness exist in contrast to each other. The existence of one leads to the existence of the other. This expectation lives on until the last part of the poem where it is defeated.

The poem commences with the creation of a text world by describing nature in negative terms as in Nahajec's analysis of the poem The Listeners" (2009: 120) negation in the poem contributes to the theme of presence. In the second line of the poem Lucies who scarce seven hours herself unmasks" the two negatives scarce' and unmasks' combine together to bring about the proposition of the presence of light for seven hours only a time span that is cognitively taken to be too short thereby establishing the dominance of dark; in other words the absence of light. Through implicature an intended meaning is conveyed that refers to the presence of darkness for the rest of the time; that is for seventeen long hours. Hence darkness which is an absence becomes a presence through implicature with the help of negative triggers.

The use of the negatives in almost every line of the first stanza strengthens the concept of binary opposition: light squibs vs. constant rays' sap vs. sunk' general balm vs. hydroptic earth' life vs. shrunk' which reinforce the idea of a dead nature. The reader then proceeds into a sub world where his expectations are set:

Yet all these seem to laugh Compar'd with me who am their epitaph.

This is an unrealized state of affairs rather than an actual one. Nature is not actually laughing; the poet only imagines it to be laughing. This epistemic departure represents the proposition entertained by the poet.

The idea of nothingness as an entity evolves through the use of negative triggers and through employing binary opposition:

For I am every dead thing

In whom Love wrought new alchemy. For his art did express A quintessence even from nothingness From dull privations and lean emptiness; He ruin'd me and I am re-begot Of absence darkness death: things which are not.

Nothingness' privations' emptiness' absence' and death' are words pertaining to absence of something. Using covert negation the poet provokes connotations of presence in such a way that nothingness in itself becomes a presence. The word things" in things which are not" creates a mental representation of the proposition of concrete presence; the very mention of the situation which does not exist is enough to put into the mind of reader a different world where that situation is a reality " (Jeffries 2010:111). This proposition of a concrete presence is denied by the use of the negative marker not" which in turn interestingly creates a mental representation of nothingness as an abstract presence. However interestingly this nothingness' is not completely empty because the art of love is able to extract a quintessence' from it. The semantic fullness of negation is established here in material terms.

With negative triggers the poet is able to convey degrees of nothingness. He refers to himself and the beloved as Chaoses' and then as carcasses' when the beloved though alive was away from him. After her death he considers himself as the elixir of the first nothing" a concept in alignment with earlier mentioned quintessence' of nothing.

If I an ordinary nothing were As shadow a light and body must be here

Expectations regarding the binary opposition between presence and absence existing in pairs created earlier the poet countermands here. He succeeds in creating a mental image of the first nothing" through negation. This first nothingness" exists without the existence of an opposite presence in order to compliment it. The notion of the first nothing" becomes clear only because of the propositions that were part of the whole schemata. But I am none" " the negated proposition " becomes meaningless if it is taken out of the schemata of the discourse.

A significant degree of negation in the poem is created through the cognitive parallel with its affirmative counterpart. The poet establishes his measure of nothingness' and death' by comparing it to lovers who would be alive and jubilant in the coming spring:

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 the next stanza he describes himself as the grave of all that's nothing". This negation of his living self is again established by juxtaposing it with a number of affirmatives: All others from all things draw all that's good Life soule forme spirit whence they being have

The exuberance affirming life in these two lines acts as cognitive support to assimilate the negative construct of nothingness'.

Donne uses the entire next stanza to expand on his state of nothingness' by relating it to the affirmatives of what could have been or should be it is the pragmatic force of negation which is significant in making the reader/hearer aware of scenarios that are not taking place but presumably might have done in other circumstances" (Jeffries 2010:106).

Were I a man that I were one I needs must know; I should preferred If I were any beast Some ends some means; Yea plants yea stones detest And Love; all some properties invest; If I an ordinary nothing were As shadow a light and a body must be here.

Donne very skilfully describes an absence by comparing it with presences; i.e. the negation is conceptualized by its affirmatives. Having established the requisite affirmatives he declares in the next line

But I am None

Hence he confirms his earlier claim that

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her) Of the first nothing the Elixir grown

He successfully identifies himself with nothingness' and achieves self-negation towards the end of the poem.


By making use of overt and covert negation John Donne has been able to create implicit meaning in this cognitively complex poem. The complexity of the notions that the poet entertains in this poem are established through creating expectations and defeating them through negation. Without the use of negation the notion of nothingness' as an entity would not be easy to deliver. The poet draws on the schemata of the reader to create a text world where nothingness' of his self is confirmed by negative triggers. He has very dexterously employed the counterpart affirmatives to prove his self-negation. By juxtaposing what could have been with what actually is he keeps a grip over the reader's cognitive processes and leads him to grasp the meaning that he has created in this poem. The interplay between negative and positive constructs establishes the pragmatic force of negation in creating meaning that lies beyond the surface meaning.

The poem is a tribute to someone who is not present anymore by drawing on conditions and situations that are not within the reach of the poet. The poem though complex cognitively and philosophically is a success due to the poet's adroit handling of negative markers.


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Publication:The Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences
Date:Aug 31, 2013
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