The Relic : Poem by John Donne || Summary and Analysis

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The Relic

When my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain,
(For graves have learned 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?

If this fall in a time, or land,
Where mis-devotion doth command,
Then he that digs us up, will bring
Us, 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
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.

First, we loved well and faithfully,
Yet knew not what we loved, 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 touched the seals,
Which nature, injured 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.

When my grave is broke up again Some second guest to entertain, (For graves have learned 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?
The Relic

Summary and Analysis

Introduction:

      This is one of the important poems addressed to Mrs. Magdalen Herbert who was the poet's friend and benefactor. It would be difficult to imagine as some people feel that this poem might refer to some other woman whom Donne knew in his youth. Moreover, some other poems also connected with Herbert, like The Blossom, and The Funeral, make one feel that this poem too refers to the poet's same friend. There was nothing wrong in writing about a married woman. One of the Petrarchan ways of courtship was the poet's addressing and worshipping the lady from a distance and deriving a sort of vicious satisfaction from holy love. His Platonic love for the lady is reflected in the poem. 'Relic' means a part or momento of some holy person or some souvenir or keep-sake worshipped after his death and which is supposed to have miraculous powers. The lover has got a relic - a bracelet of bright hair from his beloved and he keeps it tied round his wrist. After his death, this relic will continue to remain on his body and this will be an object of adoration or worship for the later generation of lovers. It is not only a symbol of love but also a sort of miracle because it shows that love is independent of physical wish. This sort of holy or sex-less love is indeed a miracle. It represents a mirror of souls where even the difference of sex is obliterated. Moreover, in this kind of pure love, the lovers did not know what they loved and why they loved. This nuptial and Platonic love defies description and is beyond the powers of language and communication.

Summary:

      Stanza 1 : It is quite likely that when at some future date, my grave is dug up to make room for the internment of some other body (probably the graves have learnt from women the trick of entertaining more than one person in their bed), the grave-digger will find a bracelet of bright hair on my wrist-bone. He will then understand that this is the grave of a loving couple and thereby desist from disturbing us in our grave. He may think that the lovers by this device (hair bracelet) tried to unite their souls, so that their souls may meet there on the Day of Judgement and stay together for a short time.

      Stanza 2 : If the grave is dug at a time or in a country where non-Christian faith prevails, the grave-digger will offer our remains as relics to the then ruling King or Bishop. Then our relics will be regarded as those of Mary Magdalene (a repentant prostitute converted by Christ) and those of Christ or some saint. We shall then be worshipped as saints by all women and some men. In that period people may ask for some miracle from us to prove our sainthood. I would like to convey through this poem the miracles we innocent lovers performed.

      Stanza 3 : The poet now narrates the miracles wrought by his love - First, we loved totally and faithfully, without knowing what we admired in one another and why we liked one another. We did not regard sex as the object of our love; our love was pure and ideal like the love between our guardian angels. At the time of arrival or departure we may perhaps kiss each other as a formality but we never kissed at other times in between. We never transgressed the restrictions placed on love by nature which are now violated under the pretence of law. This was the miracle we performed. I would however cross all the limits of language and all standards, if I were to describe the wonderful beauty of my beloved.

Development of Thought:

      The poem 'The Relic', begins with a horrible situation - some persons are digging the poet's grave in order to bury some other dead body. There is a dig at woman's constancy because a grave can accommodate more than one corpse at a time. The person digging his grave will find a "bracelet of bright hair about the bone". How it is possible to find 'bright hair' when the grave is full of dust and insects, is not explained by the poet. The digger will think that it is the grave of a loving couple and the bracelet of hair is a device to make the souls meet at the grave on the Day of Judgement and stay for a little while together.

Wishful Adoration:

      If the grave is dug in some heathen age or land, the bracelet will be brought to the king or the Bishop to be blessed and recognized as a Relic. The hair shall perhaps be regarded as a relic of Mary Magdalen and the poet's bones as those of Christ or some other saint. Such relics will be worshipped by the lovers for its miraculous powers. The later lovers will feel that their love will be rewarded with success if they worship the relic.

Miracles of Love:

      The poet and his beloved were engaged in a sort of Platonic love-relationship. They did not know what they loved in each other and why, though they loved 'well and faithfully'. Moreover, their love was not dependent on sexual relationship. Their love was "independent of the difference of sex". Just as the love of guardian angels is not physical but spiritual. Their love was based on a close affinity between the two souls. The lovers may have exchanged formal courtesies of kissing at the time of meeting or separation, but there was nothing more than that. Donne seems to suggest that the state of nature permitted free physical sex while our human laws have restricted sexual freedom. This may have a reference to the marriage of his lady-friend to Mr. Herbert. His love has been restricted by the lady's marriage and as such his love can now only be 'Platonic', such a love cannot be described in words. The greatest miracle is that this was a sexless and pure love and the beauty of the beloved is almost unsurpassed. She is a miracle of beauty and object of holy devotion.

Three - Fold Theme

      The poem deals with love, death and religion. Pure love, as presented in this poem defines death. At the same time, this love lives through a momento or souvenir -  'the bracelet of bright hair'. There is a kind of contradiction as this pure love is dependent on a small bit of hair. If it were a true union of souls it would not need such a flimsy token. The idea of death is emphasised by the grave and the Day of Judgment. Religion is brought in through the Bishop, 'the last busy day, Mary Magdalen' and 'guardian angels'. The worship of the poet and his beloved as saints of love after their death is a great tribute to their holy love. In fact, love becomes as sacred as religion. The three topics are intimately related to one another.

Philosophy of Love:

      Here, the poet deals with a higher and spiritual love. It is based ove is on 'feelings' and mutual understanding. This kind of spiritual love is seldom found in the world. This sort of holy love is a sort of miracle both for man and woman.

Style:

      The poem consists of three stanzas, each of eleven lines. The fifth and seventh lines are shorter than the rest. This is a poem of fancy where the miracle of hair in the grave sets the ball rolling. The unusual comparisons - grave and woman, lovers and guardian angels, the beloved and Mary Magdalen add to the charm of the poem. The laws injuring the otherwise seals of nature set free is also a fanciful figure of speech. All in all, we must admire the originality of the poem and the fancies which are enriched by Donne's sallies against woman.

Critical Appreciation:

      In spite of the poet's adoration of his beloved in a mood of Platonic love, he cannot help satirising the sex in general. In the lines three and four he has a fling at the inconstancy of woman because his beloved, like any woman, can have more than one man in her bed. Secondly, he lashes at women for their superstition in worshipping the bracelet of bright hair as a relic - "All women shall adore us." He thinks that men are not so foolish or superstitious as women. Therefore, the relic will be adored by some men.

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