John Donne’s “The Relic”, as an Example of English “Metaphysical” Poetry

Founded in the XVII century, metaphysical poetry is one of the wittiest, deepest and the most complex poetic schools throughout the world. Exclusiveness of metaphysical poetry is shown in its form, content and use of metaphysical wit and metaphysical conceit. Using these two main artistic forms, metaphysical poets (John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Carew, Richard Crashaw, Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan etc.) were able to express a blend of emotion and intellectual ingenuity simultaneously; using this technique, they could connect totally different ideas and images with each other. This was one of the main characteristics of metaphysical poetry that T.S. Eliot found highly interesting. He devoted lots of his lectures and works to analyze this technique. Eliot believed that metaphysical poets were the only poets in the history of literature who, using unification of sensibility fought and won against dissociation of sensibility and, thus, created incredible poetic school of all times.

English poet, satirist, lawyer and, finally, the dean of the St. Paul’s cathedral, John Donne (1572-1631) is one of the leading authors of the metaphysical school. His works include love poetry, religious poems, elegies, songs, sonnets, satires and sermons and are well known for their sensual context. John Donne’s style is characterized by various paradoxes, unexpected openings and endings, deep metaphysical conceits, ironies and everyday lexis. The main subject of John Donne’s  as well as other metaphysical poets’ works is showing a bond between soul, body and mind; material and metaphysical  examination of a human existence; exploring a man’s attitude towards God and on the contrary, Gods attitude towards a man; and on the basis of this reciprocity finding a person’s place in the world. He was one of the first poets who rebelled against the conventional Elizabethan poetry and brought European Baroque and Mannerist techniques in English literature. As already mentioned above, he wrote religious poems, as well as erotic and love poems; in fact, he wrote in a way that it is often hard to notice the limit between voluptuousness and religious morality. 

“The Relic” is John Donne’s one of the wittiest love poem. Like in his other poems, here, as well, the author finds a similar characteristic in two totally different subjects. The main figure of speech of the poem is a conceit- such an exaggerated metaphor, where, in fact, there is nothing in common between a signified and a signifier; but John Donne, using metaphysical wit, composes, invents a common sign between them and connects a beautiful lady and a grave with each other.

It can be said that the poem unites all the characteristics typical to John Donne’s poetry: religious depths, voluptuous and platonic love, conflict between material and “metaphysical” worlds, irony, sarcasm etc. 

The poem belongs to the collection named “Songs And Sonnets” and not to “Holly Sonnets”, which at a glance points to its secular and not religious meaning. However, the title “The Relic” proves opposite and even at the beginning of the poem reminds us of that paradoxical dispose   which can be noticed even in the first stanza of the poem:

When my grave is broke up again 

Some second guest to entertain, 

 (For graves have learn'd that woman head, 

 To be to more than one a bed) 

And he that digs it, spies 

A bracelet of bright hair about the bone, 

Will he not let'us alone, 

And think that there a loving couple lies, 

Who thought that this device might be some way 

To make their souls, at the last busy day, 

Meet at this grave, and make a little stay? [Donne, 1996:122]

In the first stanza of the lyric the author describes a tragic-comedic, paradoxical picture: already dead protagonist tells us about the scene occurring at his grave after several years of his death. In the overcrowded graveyard there is no place for a new body, therefore, the gravedigger has to bury the “newcomer” in an already occupied grave. The scene is very familiar to a reader and it reminds us of the episode from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Just like Yorick, the protagonist of the lyric, as well, is obliged to host the new “guest” and keep her “entertained”. (The original spelling of “guest” as “ghest” [Donne, 1985:112] is a kind of wordplay which reminds us of a word “ghost” and once again alerts us the tragedy of Shakespeare.) Later, it is becoming clear that the new “guest” is not the first lady who has ever shared the protagonist’s grave. The speaker is already buried with his mistress.  The sarcasm and witticism so typical to John Donne is obvious even in this introductory part of the lyric - while mentioning the second guest the author hints about women’s secret desire to share their beds with more than just one person. On the other hand, one can notice one more proof of John Donne’s witticism in his teasing wordplay: while talking about women, he deliberately uses a word “woman-head” which reminds us of its pun “maidenhead”, the word describing a virgin, pure woman. So, simultaneously, the author describes women as pure creatures and as voluptuous ones, who are able to share a bed with several men at the same time. 

The tone of the lyric changes and becomes loftier since the author mentions “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone.” [Donne, 1996:122] Woman’s hair as a symbol of love and dignity is also used by John Donne in his other poem called “The Funeral”. In the lyric the protagonist asks those who are about to “shroud” him to be careful with the “subtle” hair that is circled around his arm like a crown. That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm;/The mystery, the sign you must not touch” [Donne, 1996:119]. In both of the lyrics the hair of the mistress is a special symbol meaning everlasting love and dignity between the couples even after their death. As for “The Relic” the bright hair can be perceived as the first relic of the poem. The important thing here is that, in this part of the lyric, the author deliberately describes the hair as a bright one, not just as fair. The adjective bright underlines the vitality and strenuousness. Using this conceit John Donne opposes totally dissimilar things to each other: a bleak grave, death and a skeleton of a dead body is contrasted with vitality, joy and brightness. Depth of John Donne’s poetics is that, here, as well, he shows a forced connection of physical and metaphysical, the author makes us perceive the bracelet as a divine symbol on the one hand and as a defiled one on the other. The bracelet as an emblem of the perfect circle gets a heavenly meaning here. John Donne uses the symbolism of circle in his other poems as well. For instance, this is the symbol that ends one of his poems named “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, Like th' other foot, obliquely run; 

Thy firmness makes my circle just,  And makes me end where I begun [Donne, 1996:112]

A perfect circle as an embodiment of God was often mentioned in John Donne’s sermons too. In one of his sermons the author straightly identifies a circle with the God: “Fix upon God any where, and you shall finde him a Circle; He is with you now... He was with you before... and He will be with you hereafter” [Donne, 1962:52] However, on the other hand, the bracelet as a perfect circle can be perceived as a symbol of femininity and woman’s sexuality. 

The second stanza of the poem includes not only religious, but historical and political context as well:

  If this fall in a time, or land, 

  Where mis-devotion doth command, 

  Then he, that digs us up, will bring 

   to the bishop, and the king, 

  To make us relics; then 

Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I 

   A something else thereby; 

All women shall adore us, and some men; 

And since at such time miracles are sought, 

I would have that age by this paper taught. [Donne, 1996:122]

According to John Donne’s paradoxical assume, if the lovers’ grave is opened in such time and space where “mis-devotion” commends, their bones will be brought to a bishop and a king who will verify them as relics. In this part of the lyric the irony of the author as a former catholic is obvious. However, more interesting thing here is that he is sarcastic not only to Catholicism but towards Protestantism too. Mentioning a bishop and a king side by side in this “godless” time obviously hints to this sarcasm. 

In the previous stanzas of the poem the protagonist mainly talks about his mistress in first person plural (us) and therefore she is perceived, by a reader, not as an independent person, but as a part of the protagonist. However, after the second stanza this principle of unity is abolished by the author and, for the first time, he addresses his mistress as “thou”. (Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and IA something else thereby) [Donne, 1996:122]. Here the historical and political thematic switches back to religious one and after talking about the world, emptied of god’s grace, the author unexpectedly mentions the name of Mary Magdalene. Introducing the image of this particular saint by John Donne was not accidental. Mary Magdalene who was cured from seven spirits by Christ, is the most mysterious female character of the New Testament. On account of misleading interpretation of the gospel, peoples’ attitude towards this saint has been changing from time to time. Later, under the influence of different legends or art works, she has even been perceived as a fallen woman (despite the fact that there is no exact explanation of what was meant in her curing from seven spirits in the new testament.) In this case, it could be possible that John Donne relies on this last opinion and identifies the main character of the lyric with Mary Magdalen with carnal and spiritual signs. As for the protagonist, the author calls him “a something else” (A something else thereby) [Donne, 1996:122]. This “something”, if we discuss it in relation with the saint, can be perceived as one of her old partners on the one hand, or as the Christ himself on the other, because, just like the female character of John Donne’s lyric, the male one as well is simultaneously characterized with carnal and spiritual signs. In this part of the poem, John Donne again uses witticism and irony so typical to him. Consideration of the bones of the lovers and the bracelet as relics means that the couple will be acknowledged as saints and people will start praying on them. And who will they pray on? On a fallen woman and one of her partners or on the saint and the Christ himself? In both cases the whole Christian faith and the main doctrine of Christianity- Christ’s bodily resurrection, would turn upside down. If the bones are attributed to Christ, then the fact of resurrection is also in doubt. In this part of the lyric John Donne mixes all the carnal and depraved ideas with each other, however, one should not forget that his ideas are mere supposition and not confirmation. He creates an imaginary scene using word “if” in the beginning of the poem, according which, the lovers’ relics should have been found in the time and space of mis-devotion. (If this fall in a time, or land,Where mis-devotion doth command) [Donne, 1996:122]. Hence, this part of the lyric turns out to be one more sarcastic game of the author, not a herecy.

As it is characteristic to John Donne, the mood of the lyric is unexpectedly changed in its last stanza. Here the central figure of the poem becomes protagonist’s mistress and not the two of them as a couple. He no longer addresses her as “thou”, neither mentions her in plural. (“we” “us”…) The man praises his mistress for her mercifulness and once again reminds us of her magical nature.

 First, we lov'd well and faithfully,

Yet knew not what we lov'd, nor why; 

 Difference of sex no more we knew 

 Than our guardian angels do; 

 Coming and going, we 

Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;    

 Our hands ne'er touch'd the seals 

Which nature, injur'd by late law, sets free; 

These miracles we did, but now alas, 

All measure, and all language, I should pass, 

Should I tell what a miracle she was [Donne, 1996:122]

In his work “John Donne. Conservative Revolutionary” [Andreasen, 1967] Andreasen marks that while reading John Donne’s elegies or songs and sonnets one notices that most of them are written according to Petrarch’s or Ovid’s tradition. Such lyrics are either characterized by sublime mood, or by sexual implication. Ovid’s poetry is focused on physical love, Petrarch’s lyrics are centered on exaggeratedly ideal one and these two fulfills each other in John Donne’s poetry. “The Relic” is a good example of Adreasen’s words. The lovers’ relationship described in the last part of the lyric, reminds us of Petrarch’s and Laura’s love on the one hand and brings us back to Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” on the other. In his “Metamorphosis” the Roman poet protests the interruption of law there where nature dominates; the following episode of “The Relic” confirms that John Donne indeed does the same: “Coming and going, we Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals ;Our hands ne’er touched the seals,Which nature, injured by late law, sets free“ [Donne, 1996:122]. This part of the lyric draws our attention for other reason as well. Here the word “seals” gets double meaning. On the one hand it reminds us of an instrument used for making an official mark on a document but, on the other, it brings to mind one of John Donne’s most erotic poems “To his Mistress Going to Bed” where it gets clearly erotic meaning.

To enter in these bonds, is to be free; 

Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be [Donne, 1996:22]

After analysis of John Donne’s lyric “The Relic”, it is obvious that, as in his other love poems, (“The Ecstasy”, “The Canonization”, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” etc.) in this case as well, the author describes the faces of two different forms of love- Agape and Eros. The first one is characterized by an unconditional love towards a person, while the main distinctive feature of Eros is lust, erotic passion. By demolishing the line between physical and platonic love John Donne shows us one more example of “heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together” and reminds us that it is always possible to find an obscure similarity in things “apparently alike”. („a combination of dissimilar images or the discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently alike”) [Andreasen,1967:4]

One of the biggest advantages of John Donne’s poetics is that it unifies all the opposed images and ideas. The poetry which is based on this technique is exquisite and highly intellectual and it needs a well-prepared reader for a proper analysis. Besides, the problems, raised in John Donne’s lyrics, the existential crisis of a human nature, man’s attitude towards the God, physical and metaphysical layers of relationships between a man and a woman and numerous of others- are everlasting and are of special interest for a modern reader.  


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Miracles of Love and Wit: John Donne’s "The Relic"