This essay will look at the form, structure and content of “The Relic” in an attempt to offer an explanation as to what the poem is about. It will examine the metaphysical poets, and discuss the techniques employed by them to express their views. “The Relic” consists of three 11-line stanzas which incorporate tetrameter (four metrical feet), pentameter (five metrical feet) and two tri-meter (three metrical feet) lines per stanza. It is written mainly in iambic pentameter and has a rhyming pattern of aabbcddceee. This gives the poem a songlike quality which is associated with this type of lyric poetry.
Each stanza is made up of a single sentence which, with the help of the meter, forces the first four lines of each verse to be read rapidly. The caesura then slows down the reading, causing the reader to reflect more deeply on what has been said. In the first line of “The Relic”, Donne uses images allied with death. This makes it easy for the reader to mistake the theme of the poem as being about dying. By using the personal pronoun ‘my’ (l. 1) placed alongside the noun ‘grave’ (l. 1) it is suggested that it is Donne’s own grave which is being made reference to, thus reinforcing the impression of a mournful poem.
However, when Donne goes on to describe the exhumation of his and his lover’s corpses, after they have rotted away, the poem changes from embodying death to celebrating love. The reader becomes aware that although he is dead, death is not the true significance here. The move from death to love is introduced with: ‘A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,’ (l. 6). This line could be interpreted as a wedding ring joining the couple together; adding to the intensity of their love. However, this is explained in ‘The Funeral’ (p 309) as ‘a lock of hair tied about his arm’ (p 309).
This explanation could detract from the power of the line. The line seems to have more potency without this knowledge, adding an extra dimension to the poem, so allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions about the relationship between the couple. The juxtaposition of a grave with a pair of lovers is a powerful, paradoxical metaphor that is shocking to the reader. This pairing would not automatically be seen as romantic but Donne succeeds in conveying this impression.
By indicating that the gravedigger would ‘think that there a loving couple lies,’ (l. 8) after noticing the ‘bracelet of bright hair about the bone,’ (l.6), Donne successfully communicates that ‘The Relic’ is a poem about eternal love; love has survived beyond death. This collocation of opposing elements is a technique often employed by the metaphysical poets to express their thoughts and feelings.
The metaphysical poets were influenced by Neo-Platonism ; a system of philosophical and theological doctrines . However, this highly abstract and over theoretical approach to poetry can make it less accessible; alienating a vast selection of readers. Poetry should not only be about intellectual superiority which, it could be argued, is often associated with the metaphysical poets.
This appeared to be the view of Samuel Johnson, who was the first to label this generation of authors ‘The Metaphysical Poets’: The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together: nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased. T. S. Eliot, whilst admitting the difficulty in defining metaphysical poetry, opposed Johnson’s view.
When considering ‘Donne’s most successful and characteristic effects … ’ he used sections of the line ‘A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,’ (l. 6) to illustrate his approval of their methods: … the most powerful effect is produced by the sudden contrast of associations of ‘bright hair’ and ‘bone’. This telescoping of images and multiplied associations [… ] is one of the sources of the vitality of their language. (p 1099) If we look again at line 8 of “The Relic”, it is noticeable that the gravedigger would only ‘think that there a loving couple lies,’ (l. 8).
It would be logical to assume that a husband would be buried with his wife, so the use of ‘think’ (l. 8) is puzzling. By following this with the apparently polysemous ‘lies,’ (l. 8) the poem could be read differently, altering the entire meaning to suggest that their love was only a fantasy. Another characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its tendency to use religious imagery to express its views. Towards the end of the first stanza, “The Relic” introduces the concept of ‘their souls, at the last busy day,’ (l. 10).
This has been interpreted as a veiled reference to judgement day and leads the reader smoothly into the second stanza where the images of death are replaced with a high lexical density of religious vocabulary. Donne uses lexis such as ‘mis-devotion’ and ‘doth command’ (l. 13);
‘Bishop’ (l. 15); ‘relics’ (l. 16); ‘Mary Magdalen’ (l. 17); and ‘miracles’ (ll. 20-22) in order to extend the religious metaphor, introduced at the end of the first stanza, to evoke powerful images in the mind of the reader. Donne raises the question, in line 17, of who the ‘I’ really is here? It has been suggested, all through time, that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and perhaps even bore him a child.
This idea of Mary Magdalene’s companion perhaps being Christ seems to be a concept that the metaphysical poets would enjoy debating; so adding a cerebral quality to their work. The line ‘All women shall adore us, and some men;’ (l. 19) juxtaposed with the repetition of ‘miracles’ (ll. 20-22) adds credence to the idea that Christ is lying beside Mary Magdalene, especially when the reader takes into account the reference to ‘harmless lovers’ (l. 22).
The fact, that this couple ‘wrought’ (l. 22); which means moulded or formed; ‘miracles’ (l. 22) suggests that the ‘I’ (l.17) could be a reference to Jesus. The suggestion that when the couple are finally dug up they will be presented to ‘the Bishop and the King,’ (l. 15) further strengthens this connection with Christ. A Bishop (who is a senior member of Christian clergy) is thought to be a successor of the twelve Apostles of Christ by some churches, and a King is the ruler of a kingdom.
Only the most important of people would be afforded the privilege of an audience before either of these men. In the first stanza it is automatically assumed that Donne is the man lying in his grave.
This is simply because he is the author of the poem and he uses the possessive pronoun ‘my’ (l. 1) in the first line. This poses the question, if he was referring to Jesus, was Donne likening himself to Christ? The reader is left to wonder. There is a shift in focus from the overtly religious second stanza to a more reflective account of the couples love in the final stanza. It is implied, in the first line, that the relationship was not as perfect as previously indicated. The use of the adverb ‘First,’ (l. 23) placed before ‘we loved well and faithfully,’ (l.
23) could indicate that at a later date the couple did not love each other quite as honestly as they had once done. This is followed with what could be considered as a lament from someone who has lost their lover. The use of the past tense, with the verb ‘knew’ (l. 25) rather than ‘know’ seems to signify an ending to the relationship which has occurred whilst the couple were still alive. This is reinforced with the line: ‘nature, injured by late law, sets free: / These miracles we did;’ (ll. 30-31). Therefore the injuries caused by human law are more important than the ‘miracles’ (l.
31) of their love, which are insignificant as they are set ‘free’ (l. 31) or cast aside. This indicates their love was not strong enough to conquer the laws of their time. This could also be a further reference to Christ and Mary Magdalene as, had they had a relationship, they could both have been forced to forego their love for Christianity; an idea that Donne would perhaps want to offer up for consideration. In the final lines, if we take ‘measure’ (l. 32) to mean prosody (the study of poetic meter) and language to mean the lexis being used, the vocabulary seems to be reflective of the poem itself.
These lines appear to say he feels he should communicate the information to others but is unsure whether he should tell others of the ‘miracle’ (l. 33) he feels the woman besides him was. As the poem is already doing this, it is playing a game with the reader. In conclusion, Donne uses specific poetic techniques in an effective and striking way. However, the reader often gets lost in trying to define exactly what he is trying to say. It could be argued that the power of poetry should lie in its subjectivity; each reader being able to take away what they want from the reading.
After all, in the words of Cleanth Brooks : There is no ideal reader, of course, and I suppose that the practising critic can never be too often reminded of the gap between his reading and the “true” reading of the poem. (p. 1368) Bibliography Brooks, C. (1951) The Formalist Critics, The Norton Anthology Theory And Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, General Editor, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2001). Collins, W. (2005) Collins English Dictionary, Suffolk: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
Conner, M. Dr. http://www. eng. fju. edu.tw/English_Literature/period/metaphysicals. html [accessed February 2008]. Eliot, T. S. (1921) The Metaphysical Poets, The Norton Anthology Theory And Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, General Editor, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2001).
Johnson, S. (1783) From Lives of the English Poet, The Norton Anthology Theory And Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, General Editor, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2001). Princeton University. (2008) http://www. thefreedictionary. com/neoplatonism, (USA: Farlex, Inc) [ accessed February 2008].
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