The Relic

Title: The Relique #

I. Context & Subject Matter #

Sir Herbert Grierson, the great editor of Donne’s poetry, places “The Relique” as one of a group of poems that have an unusual motivation. Donne was a leading destroyer of the “Petrarchan” convention in love poetry, which was the fashion of writing verses expressing adoration of a lady without any expectation that the love could, or even should, be returned. The fashion had been more or less invented by Petrarch, the great Italian sonnet writer who wrote dozens of love poems to Laura, a young lady whom he probably hardly ever met and with whom he certainly had no expectation of a love affair. Anyway, “The Relique”, surprisingly enough, is such a Petrarchan tribute, probably addressed to Mrs Magdalen Herbert, an aristocratic, pious and virtuous married woman who would have accepted the compliment in the spirit in which it was given.

Grierson had a theory that the franker and more sensual poems are the product of Donne’s early days as a man-about-town and addressed to young women, married or single, who could be persuaded, under some circumstances, to be available. This poem, along with “A Nocturnall upon St Lucie’s Day”, belongs to the period when Donne was a member of Sir Thomas Egerton’s household and was mixing with people of higher rank who were accustomed to the convention. Mrs Herbert became, in fact, his lifelong friend and correspondent.

Donne said: I did best when I had least truth for my subjects. Modern ideas of sincerity were not as important in Donne’s early poetry.

The Relic #

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?*
*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 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.*

II. Sound Effects The Relic #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

There is a playful tone to this poem; it is tongue in cheek; not to be taken too seriously.

The poem again argues systematically that their love equates to that of saints – an preposterous claim.

The closing stanza is a bit more realistic and sober justifying their love because it is harmless and platonic – non-sexual and therefore pure and miraculous.

III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns #

The theme of the poem is similar to that of “The Canonization”; our love should be venerated as saints are. In England, before the Reformation, the relics of saints and martyrs were venerated and, were popularly supposed to have miraculous healing powers. After the Reformation the veneration of saints was suppressed so Donne’s revival of the practice is outrageous and he could be charged with heresy.

In Elizabethan times, too, graves were not as neatly arranged and recorded as in our own time, and it was common for graves to be dug up to receive a second or third dead body. In “Hamlet”, you remember, poor Ophelia was buried in a grave that had contained the bones of Yorick, the King’s jester whom Hamlet had known as a child.

Stanza 1

This stanza contains one of Donne’s most haunting, evocative and quotable lines:

“A bracelet of bright hair about the bone”

We find it odd, but fascinating, that the Elizabethans should be so taken up with death and graves and bones but should not be morbid or macabre about it. What modern lover could make romantic capital out of the idea of their bones being mingled in the one grave, with only a scrap of her hair to unite them. The attraction of the phrase probably lies in the contrast between the description of the hair as “bright”, an adjective that normally indicates abundant life, and the grave in which it would be found. At all events, the theme of this stanza is that anyone digging up the grave for a new occupant and finding their mingled bones would surely assume that two lovers were laid here, hoping that, on judgement day, when the dead will be raised, most likely a very busy day indeed, their souls will meet here and linger together for a while.

Stanza 2 The second stanza touches on a point of religious controversy and Donne uses the idea quite naturally because it was part of the intellectual furniture of the age. He was very much a man of this world and took the keenest interest in Geography and Astronomy as well as Religion and Politics and wove them into his poetry. When he refers to a “land/where mis-devotion doth command” he is referring to countries not touched by the Reformation. In such countries the bones of saints and martyrs were venerated and were believed to work miracles of healing. In Protestant England this no longer applied. In such a country, then, the supposed grave—digger, instead of leaving them alone to wait for the Last Day, would take the bones to the Bishop or the King and have them officially declared to be the relics of saints, and so able to work miracles. By making assumption that this could only happen in countries less enlightened than his own he deftly skirts the edge of blasphemy, getting away with it by a light touch and a ready wit. Under these circumstances the lady can be Mary Magdalen, the one who loved Jesus and was closest to him- The play on Mrs Magdalen Herbert’s name is obvious. In that case what will he be? Good taste demands that he leave that question hanging in the air. All women would be happy to identify themselves with Mary Magdalen and seek her intercession for them with God. Even some men would be happy to seek her good offices.

As the whole point of venerating the relics of saints is to have them work miracles on one’s behalf the poet claims that this poem, which he equates with a religious document stating the case for sainthood, will now show what miracles the two gentle lovers have performed through their love.

Stanza 3 These are the miracles:

  1. They loved well and faithfully.

  2. Their love did not depend on sex for fulfilment and they never had sexual intercourse. In Heaven there is no marrying or giving in marriage and angels recognise no difference between the sexes.

  3. They might kiss when they meet and again when they parted but nothing took place in between.

  4. “Our hands ne’er touched the seals Which nature, injured by late law, sets free”.

By this he means that human sexuality is kept suppressed under a seal, as it were, until mutual passion or “nature” breaks down the inhibitions and brings lovers together in Physical love. The moral laws of society, as well as the actual laws of the land, which are only “late” developments compared with the long history of mankind, sternly suppress the free expression of physical love. These two lovers, however, never tried to break these “seals”.


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

As lovers they performed all these miracles but, as a poet, he would have to go beyond all the normal use of language and all moderation to express what a miracle she, in herself, was.

You can see that the hyperboles are carefully controlled to gain specific effects and are not the spontaneous outbursts of a young man striving to express the sense of wonder and passion surging within himself. The poem flatters the lady but makes it abundantly clear that her formal virtue was not in question. There is a logical progression of ideas and the usual dense thought, and the celebration of their enforced continence as a miracle is cleverly done. Nothing illustrates the strength, the brilliance and the economy of Donne’s language more than an attempt to express his thought in ordinary, uninspired prose.

“A bracelet of bright hair about the bone”.

Look also at:

“Thou shalt be a Mary Magdelen, and I

A something else thereby;

All women shall adore us, and some men;”


“Our hands ne’er touched the seals,
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free:”

It is a clever bit of intellectual sleight-of-hand to pay a sexual compliment to a lady while firmly declaring that sex has never raised its head. I admire the poem but I miss the excitement that Donne generates when he is, or appears to be, deeply involved in his theme.

The lady would be Mary Magdalen, a reformed prostitute, often portrayed by Renaissance painters with long golden hair, the one who loved Jesus and was closest to him- The play on Mrs Magdalen Herbert’s name is obvious. All women would be happy to identify themselves with Mary Magdalen and seek her intercession for them with God. Even some men would be happy to seek her good offices.


*Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,
Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases. *

Archaic expressions:

Woman-head – Suggesting women were promiscuous.

Busy day - Day of Judgment when countless people will be resurrected.

Mis-devotion- It was currently against the doctrine of the Anglican Church to invoke saints.

Seals- There was no sexual contact.

Late law – Society’s conventions on propriety in sexual matters.

All measure and all language, I should pass
Should I tell what a miracle she was.

Words cannot express how marvelous she is.

VI. Evaluation: #

This is a flippant poem of Donne’s early writing when he was known for his “a great visitor of ladies and a great frequenter of Playes”. It shows his flair for boldness and daring in iconoclastic reasoning.

It is a marvel that he gets away with it in the light of the fact that he eventually becomes Dean of St Pauls Cathedral, the highest religious office in England. 1. Content.lnk