THE RELIC by John Donne

CRITICAL APPRECIATION
This is one of the important poems addressed to Mrs. Magdelen 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.

DEVELOPMENT OF THOUGHT
The poem 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 arid the beauty of the beloved is almost unsurpassed. She is a miracle of beauty and object of holy devotion.
CRITICAL COMMENTS
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’.
Three-fold theme
The poem deals with love, death and religion. Pure love, as presented in this poem defies 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 alter 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 on ‘feelings’ and mutual understanidng. 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.
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