“The Relic’s” Hopeful Imagery

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Aug 271993
 

In “The Relic,” John Donne conducts a grand compliment to the woman he loves by way of holy and hopeful imagery. The poem is based upon the central image of a holy relic used to reference a simple lock of his loved-one’s hair, a lock which, “At the last busy day” of Final Judgment, will pull him and his love together, as their bodies re-assimilate upon holy disinterment. (ln.10) The piece goes on to present additional images, primarily religious, as in completes the concepts of reincarnation, profound love, and miracle.

The first stanza’s images are essential merely poetic devices of metaphor and metonymy. The “second guest” to be entertained by the grave “bed” which he once possessed are basically metaphors. (lns.2, 4) They suggest, however, that the stay in the grave is not indefinite; guests leave eventually, sleepers in beds wake up (even lovers leave beds eventually: a more fitting parallel because of the “women-head” polygamous suggestion). (ln.3) Thus already there is some suggestion of Christian mythology of reincarnation.

The second stanza is where the religious imagery congeals to set the holy tone for the entire work. Donne hopes, upon his digging-up, if this event occurs in a superstitious, idolatrous land, “where mis-devotion doth command,” that the digger will take his and his lover’s remains to “to the Bishop and the King” (thereby pegging Roman Catholicism, by association, as superstitious) to be made into “relics.” (lns.13, 15, 16) By this elevation of their base remains, they in turn are elevated (in the idolatrous society) to holy status—a status which Donne feels they deserve. They will then become “Mary Magdalen” and he “something else thereby.” (lns.17, 18) This religious allusion and his association “thereby” to it suggests perhaps that his lover is akin to a whore, though one forgiven, and that he is guilty as well and forgiven as well. (ln.18) It is tempting to suppose, at this point, that he and the women to whom he writes this poem had sexual relations, relations which her Roman Catholic upbringing has caused undue (in Donne’s opinion) guilt in her. The “harmless miracles” which the lovers “wrought” then could be an effort to both elevate this relationship of ‘sin’ as well as show its simple kernel. (ln.22)

Yet the third stanza opens with an enumeration of these miracles, and the foremost of them is chastity: “Difference of sex no more we knew,/ Than our guardian angels do.” (ln.25) They never, then, “touched those seals/ Which nature, injured by late law, sets free:” those of virginity or chastity. (lns.29-30) So the conciliatory tone of the poem is now nothing but celebratory or complimentary; there is no persuasion going on here; though Donne feels the freedom of sexual abandon to be injured by laws of chastity, he knows also that such resistance is miraculous and holy. The way is paved for the ‘Grand Compliment’ of the piece, where he expresses language and quantification’s inability to express “what a miracle she was.” (ln.33) He abandons the poem, almost anti-climatically, with a sense that this image of her miraculous nature must be expressed by not expressing it, by not ‘nailing it down’ in language or measure (meter).

Therefore, what begins as a poem suggestive of base and worldly matters, where sexuality is set up to be lauded in spite of Roman Catholic prudery, closes with a ‘double-cross’ of transcendence. The religious imagery of the piece, at first suggestive of Judgment, death, idolatry, forgiven sin, gives way to direct, non-imaginative language, where only the satisfying “meal” of a kiss intrudes its poetic device on the stanza. (ln.28) The holy transcends into the woman who is the subject, thereby making her, in effect, transcend the transcendent; though he could speak of death, Judgment, idolatry, and their actions on the earth with holy imagery, when the time comes to speak of “what a miracle she was,” no words, images, or verse will suffice. (ln.33) By not lauding, and explaining why, more praise than is possible is rained upon the lucky woman, Donne’s love.

May 5, 1993

The Two Sides Of The Same Coin

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Feb 271992
 

Throughout history, the rational, scientific perspective of the world has come into bitter conflict with the predominant theological or idealistic views of the time. Religious leaders have struggled to insure, under the shadows of doubt cast by empirical discoveries and ideas, the continued faith of their followers. Conversely, rational thinkers have striven to convince the masses of their new-found truths. Both sides of this classic struggle, however, have usually tended to miss the real failings behind their beliefs.

Religion, to begin with, invariably dictates to its followers an explanation, as Douglas Adams put it, of “life, the universe, and everything.” All, from Christianity to Zen Buddhism, try to explain man’s purpose in the grand scheme of things. In any given religion, be humanity bestial or divine in the religion’s eyes, some justification and guide for our lives are always given; holy writings, parables, or scriptures offer the religious their answers. Also, all try to explain the creation of the universe. Genesis, Ptah’s whim, the Earth Mother’s divine conception, Odin’s debauchery: all religions offer, for their followers, the “truth” concerning where everything began. Yet, there is ever the demand for faith. No religion stands alone on irrefutable proof of its views. All require the ubiquitous leap of faith to become a part of them. If one takes a Descartian epistemology (the accepted Western theory of knowledge), one concedes ignorance of matters one can not soundly explain. Subsequently, the religious can never know their truths, for they can never prove them.

This failing is the principle venue of attack taken by the rational philosophers (not to be confused with religious philosophers). Yet, the leaders of empiricism undertake the same task as theologians of the world. They try to offer alternative explanations, through logical proof, of the workings of the universe and man’s place in them. They scoff, hypocritically as will be shown, at the concept of faith. There is, however, an adamantine wall deterring them as well. There exists, as a constant frustration for philosophers, the infamous infinite regress. This idea, simply put, requires retrogressive proof of each thing which a person claims to know. The infinite regress demands continual, causal justification for every protocol statement. There are only two ways to stop a infinite regress. The first requires that a self-evident truth be reached during the regress. Yet, every self-evident truth can be doubted because, barring linguistic axioms (like, a triangle is a three-sided, three-angled polygon), every concept’s falsity can be imagined; and, therefore, every concept is conceivably variable. So, because humans can only be certain of their own instantaneous existence, their imaginations are the only power they can trust. Since this power can realize the falsity of every “truth,” this ‘self-evidency’ solution to the infinite regress is useless. In other words, if some philosopher claims discovery of a self-evident truth and another philosopher can imagine an instance, no matter how hypothetical, where the truth would be false (which can be done by someone in every case), then the “truth” is, in fact, corrigible and untrustworthy. The power of imagination is the only testing grounds, and an idea, failing truth there, can find it no where else. The only other solution philosophy offers is containment. Containment simply involves agreeing upon a place to stop in the regress for practical purposes. But finding the nature of the universe does not allow for convenient arrest. Therefore, philosophical inquiry ends with the same concept or acceptance as religious proof: faith.

Now, it is obvious that the empiricists and religious are actually different sides of the same coin. Both try to give answers concerning the nature of the cosmos; both turn to faith in the end; both damn the other. Though their conflict is deep-seeded, their results are the same. For some, faith is fine to which to concede; most, however, want to know. Why? Most seek some external truth. Why? As stated above, all that man can be certain of is himself. The religious and the philosophical should realize, then, that truth is relative. That belief which gives one man comfort is his religion, his philosophy. If it differs from another man’s beliefs, or another world’s beliefs, it is no more incorrect than its counterpart; neither, conclusively, can be proven. Essentially then, the conflict, the warring, the debate between the rational and the religious has been, and continues to be, wasted effort, except for the result of pushing forth scientific inquiry into the basic truths of the practical world. After all, how can the Pope say Martin Luther is wrong when His Eminence can not know what, ultimately, is right. All should simply realize their ignorance, find a belief (if they choose to believe anything at all), and be content in its security, without attacking another’s peace.

This subjectivist argument seems to lead to the result of noone being allowed to discuss “higher matters.” This riposte hinges upon an implied premise that all communication must be useful. Certainly, this seems true for matters of science, politics, resource management, and, in general, normative life. Must, however, metaphysical debate have a culmination, or, put differently, must it come to an end of concession by one side? To help answer this, I ask that you consider art. The truths of aesthetics are as slippery, if not more so, than those of metaphysics—hence the reason that aesthetics is a field of metaphysics. Noone would attempt to dictate another’s aesthetic reaction to a work of art. Yet, people discuss new art and new artists all the time; what do they hope to accomplish?

Nothing.

The discussion of art is done for the same end as the perception of it: pleasure. Thus, I believe that philosophy is done for the end of pleasure, and not raw truth. People discussing philosophy, like those discussing art, are merely expressing their faiths. The pleasure comes either from the equation of the people’s view, or from the mental exercise, the “brain-endorphine buzz,” generated by trying to defend one’s view or find inconsistencies in another’s.

Some may now dispute that people interested in art read art critics for the end of learning something; and in my metaphor, that philosophers write for the end of augmenting human knowledge, i.e. to accomplish something. This paralleling of philosopher to art critic is correct in my metaphor, but the interpretation of the job the critic does is false. The critic is there to provide his interpretation of his perception of the art for those who failed to experience it. True, many people look to critics for information, but this is really a laziness on the reader’s part; he assumes the critic’s opinion because everyone else says that the critic is good. So those who read philosophy to learn truth are really just too lazy to seek their own truth; likewise for religions (since they are but philosophies of one sort).

Once again, the only reason one should “do philosophy” is for the pleasure gained by the exercise, not to be told the truth.

Thus, rather than an expression of the real nature of the cosmos, philosphies or religions, rationalists or theists, are really just artforms.  They have their medium—the written word and debate—their audience, their artist. Far from a denegration of philosophical pursuit, I show that, because it lacks the solid grounding it would like to think it has, it is freed for expression. Every treatise on philosophy need not be written with rigorous logical babble—this is shown clearly by the profound, yet logically inconsistent and at time incoherent, writing of the existentialists. Their influence on the current of ideas in Western society in undeniable, yet their work, under the bobastic demands of most philosophers, is useless, incomprehensible.

Cynwal’s Confession

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Dec 121989
 

I come to thee, these twenty years past, seeking that which thou denied me upon my first—and only, I might add—visit to this shrine. Now wait! Hold thy tongue, though passionately it may wish to counter my words. Thou must listen long and well to my tale before casting down thy righteous decree. Thou must know well my life, painful in its snail’s-tread span, so that thy reason may know emotion and thy god’s true light might uncloud thy scripture-veiled eyes.

I was once a simpler man, and happy without the weight of these jewels and furs. A smith in the town, I passed my days with honest work and spent my nights comforted by my good wife, so fair in her youth. Twin sons did she give me, and no finer babes were there to be found in all of Exeter. Though at times they proved burdensome—and what children, at two winters old, do not?—my Elryna always tended to them when I was hard at work. Ours was the most full of homes, though none of thy opulent company would feel so upon viewing its humble trappings.

Have care to pay attention now, thou whom I hear squirming and sighing with impatience behind thy curtain. My house, whole in spirit, was Fated to suffer turmoil even in the height of its peace and happiness.

It was on a clouded day, just after harvest celebrations, that the Fates did strike my home with their blindly omniscient will. I did toil heavily over a shirt of mail when into my empty house—Elryna had taken her sons to thy new church for mass—came a woman of the Earl’s court. I knew her to be thus, not solely by the fineness of her bearing and of the jewels lying splendid upon her bosom, but more by the retainers which she lacked but seemed to expect as she left the door open behind her. My eyes and loins did then ally against my heart in violent quarrel; I was convinced that she was the fairest dove ever to grace my vision, even more so than my sole love. The lady spoke unto me, commanding that I forge a weapon most fine that she could present to her master. When I tried to ask of her what death-giver would be preferred, I could not command my voice: it was the first of my possessions she would steal away. She, however, knew that which she desired, and upon imparting the measures of a footman’s pole axe, did glide from my home to return to her high place.

It is here that the telling becomes hard, for my shame does wish to beat back my anger and send me from this chamber. But today’s victory will be mine and my family’s, not the Worm’s, whose malicious hand stirs the brine now drowning my once-loving home. Yea, the battle will be won, but perhaps not, I fear, without thine aid.

The woman returned a fortnight later seeking her order. I had finished the arm and was polishing the blue of its blade when she entered my front room. The dampness of the dusk had done no injustice to her comeliness, and her eyes seemed to shine with an inner light—a light of virtue I ignorantly surmised. The lady closed the door to the waning light outside; the furnace’s ruddy glow encompassed her as she moved to stand over me. She complimented fully my labors, all the while seeming to invite my gaze and to stoke my desire. Yes, “white” father, my desire; forgotten were the vows I shared with my once again, almost conveniently, absent wife. I found myself enraptured by the beauty’s voice, in awe of her features. Likewise did she appreciate my virtues, for she then spoke of my appeal to her. Like a boy was I upon hearing of her favor, so excited was my passion. I found myself reaching for her, and, to my surprise, she did not withdraw, but instead gave her body into my arms. My mind whirling in a gray cloud, we retired to the back room and, in my family’s bed, did commit ourselves to damning caresses.

Here can I almost see thy disapproval through the confessional screen, can feel thy righteousness swell through this soft closet’s dark air to lash me; to damn me as thou did when I first came to the poorer beginnings of this now majestic House. Ah! Do I hear a denial from thee? Yes, now thou seem, by thy protest, to recall. My voice hearkens chimes of memory from the depths of thy past. And now! Now, thou try to justify thy youthful posturing, to polish it over like an ill-forged blade. Be silent! Wait. There is more to be said and heard.

Though my mind and heart did revolt against the act to which I had fallen, my flesh could find no complaint. The lady’s touch burned with a penetrating flame; her kisses marked my skin like bites; her bites drew blood. Yet, not once in this arousing, painful deed did I cry “hold, enough!” for I was hers, I realized, from the moment I took her. Somewhere in the depths of my spirit, a fear took hold, a fear of the consequences of such an act. It brushed me like chill winds of gathering thunderheads, whispering promises of disaster. Passion’s voice was the louder, however; and I, vanquished, swore fealty to its command.

Afterwards, she slept, but my thoughts would not grant me such solace—though solace has sleep not been since that fateful evening. Sorrow beat back the now spent passion and established its rule over my humour. I bade the woman awaken and hie from my dwelling and she did so, but not without first speaking of a “bargain.” She promised her return and the value of her favor, then made off with the pole axe—and something more, I fear—into the night.

Tormented was I for the three days until my love Elryna’s return. She came home smiling, but lost the fair expression upon viewing mine. She, full of unwarranted love for me, asked of my pain. Before reason could stay my tongue with its deceptive bonds, I found myself pouring the events of that night out to her. It was then, holy man, that I came to know the value of the woman of my house. No words of condemnation or anger did come from her trembling lips, only solace, understanding, and concern. She comforted my wretched, valueless self, holding me in her arms while I spewed forth the blasphemous details of my sin.

It was at the close of my hateful tale that wrath finally found a home in Elryna’s heart. Upon hearing of the woman’s promised bargain, she immediately crossed herself, as was her recently found faith, and ordered me here to her church, thy once simple shrine. She had been told of thy Nemisis’s underhanded tactics by which man is stolen; she feared for my soul. Here do I command thee to pay the utmost regard to detail, for it was thy ears to which I tried to confess my sin, to stay the Worm’s attack.

Thou had been recently commissioned to our county to smear thy faith about the land. Thou had built a small hall of worship to which not a few of the first gods’ people had been lured. It was at my wife’s urgent behest that I, twenty winters ago, did step into thy fledgling church to confess my deed. Thou, with conceit spawned of thy swaggering youth, did usher me into a similar room as this and, separated from me as you are now, bade me ask for thy god’s forgiveness. Unfortunately, my youth found me likewise no great stranger to vainglory, and I boastfully declared that I sought no pity from thy false god, that it could offer me nothing, that I was here only to comfort my wife’s faith.

Thy pride, smitten, ordered me then out of thy booth and thy hall, damning me to thine Hell. Angered, I stormed out; I swore never to return to such a hollow hall, but to remain in the fulfilling temples of Odin All-Father and his spawn.

I could not, however, return home with the tale of such rejection, so I conjured one of forgiveness and repentance for the woman I so deeply loved. The lie fell favorably upon her ears, and we did return to a life I thought would once again be complete in its security.

Yet, four days later, the lady of the court returned to my smithy, this time bearing a royal edict. Though her presence was not welcomed, the flowery writing upon the parchment was, for it commanded me unto the Earl’s court. The lady—how I now abhor such a reference being used for her person—told of the Earl’s pleasure with my workmanship and promised great wealth for further efforts. Elryna’s gaze in my direction told me of her dislike for the woman, but the room about her and the two boys within it bespoke of the need for the offer. I found myself agreeing to the summons while within I shrank away from the harsh, but silent, disapproval of my love. The woman, with the honor and decency of a common whore, then told me that repayment for this debt would no longer be so simple, or so satisfying. She then, smiling wickedly, turned and left me, my wife, and the growing rift between us alone with our sons in the small room.

From there, my life seemed to improve greatly, despite the ill feelings of my love. The Earl, much to my honor, gave unto me the position of Master Armourer of the Court. In my first audience, he imparted his overwhelming satisfaction with my abilities, then did shower me with robes, treasures, and properties befitting my promotion. Forgotten was the home in which I had earned the new-found glory; I saw a much greater home in which to raise my boys, in which to hold close my family. Lost was the love our simpler dwelling had held, for we moved to reside within the Earl’s hall, to sit about his table. Immediately, the duties of my office consumed my time with the appetite of a giant; less and less frequently did I find occasion to play with my sons or bed my wife. The years, busily filled, slid past like quicksilver.

I spent every light hour—and many a dark one—toiling in the Earl’s smithy. I had forty underlings aiding me and following my command; I did what I could to arm the castle’s forces. My sons, coming too quickly into manhood, chose to follow such a soldier’s course. Our county was, fortunately, graced with peace during their squirehoods, and they, being gifted fighters, were knighted and given trainer’s positions long before the Bellow Downs War which consumed so many lowly troops’ lives. I had, for these several years, seen little of my fair seductress, as her “duties” kept her in the upper chambers of the keep. Not until my boys had found their seats at the Earl’s table did she return to begin collecting her horrid fees. I knew nothing of her underhanded time-passings until my son Herstorn presented her to me as his bride.

I, at first, failed to recall her face, though its image hearkened cold and painful ripples of faint memory. I remember well my befuddlement upon recognition: she had not changed, not aged a moon since our night together! I looked to my wife, who had taken leave of her constant prayers for the announcement, as was her duty. She was deathly pale, her eyes locked with the eyes of the only woman she had ever seen fit to dub “demon.” Herstorn seemed truly happy, though, and I felt little good would be done to our already loosely bound family if I were to drag the past up from its murky grave.

My son’s glad grins of joy were, however, soon to melt into grimaces of despair. A year ago, the horn of bloody conflict called him to the eastern border to suppress an unruly lord and his serf troops; and, of course, that witch could not bear the chill of a lone bed. She, with her now usual, evil scheming, chose to turn her devices upon my other son, Garret. He, as vulnerable to her spell as his frail father, slipped into the woman’s web. Herstorn’s triumphant and glorious return from battle was to his own brother bedding his wife.

Woefully, my dear wife has had her spirit broken by this echo of painful history. Her health has failed; she was stricken with a frightful fever a month ago and still battles it this very day. Further, my boys have drawn blade against one another. The demon stokes their anger purposefully and carefully; neither now calls the other “brother,” only “enemy.” Even now, I am certain they are planning their challenges, waiting for the most advantageous time to draw the gauntlet. This only further sickens my poor love. In all of this strife, I can bring no light. No words soothe the swollen passions of my sons; no comfort heals the wounds in my clan.

Now, a score of years has passed since the day that first brought all of this misery with its dawn. Now thou shalt learn why I come to thee again, why I belie my ages-old oath. Understand, holy man, that I come to make a deal, to strike a bargain, through thee, with that unsympathetic lord of thine. I step ever closer to the grave; my body is nearly crushed by the weight of the guilt I’ve been forced, by thy wrath and pride, to bear. Thou did force me away from the arms of your god to which I had, unwittingly, fled. Now, forsaken by my gods as I, ignorantly, did forsake them with my first visit here, I seek to offer my soul to your god in exchange for the healing of the bloody shreds of my family. I offer all that I am to him so that he may see it as favorable to strike the hateful woman from my twins’ minds and hearts and end the cursed fraternal battle. Without thy prayers and thy god’s sword, she will plague my life—what little there remains of it—as she has since that fated night.

And thus do I beseech thee to come to my family’s rescue, to correct thy past injustice and negotiate this divine treaty, so that those I love may be freed of the pain which is my doing. It matters not that I shall become a slave to thy god; he would, I wager, make a finer master than the Demon who now holds lordship over my spirit.

Thou sit behind thy rich veil in silence, pondering all I have said and all that I have begged. Then, with a righteous arrogance that has not matured, but swelled like aging timber with the passing of the seasons, thou say unto me, “Get thee from my confessional, heathen! The Lord makes no ‘deals’ with pagans who commit adultery with a woman of Satan! Go forth to thy damnation, succubus-lover; and may thy tainted sons soon join thee in Hell.”

And, with such admonishments rending my hope to tatters, you slam closed your screen… to hide.

Very well, false believer, false father, empty soul. If thy callous lord has no bench about his table for the wretched, then I know of another with whom I can strike my “bargain.” Thy rule book professes that he never refuses that which I offer. I shall go to my damnation; and despite thy heinous, spiteful wishes, I shall remain there alone.

The Interrelation Of Parts

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Nov 271989
 

The mystery play called The Second Shepherd’s Play, written around 1425, serves as an educational model in fictive and mythological form to the members of the Christian faith. It is broken into two distinct parts, each with its own storyline. The true lesson for Christians comes from the interrelation of these two parts with an emphasis on thematic connections. Before delving into the connections between each part, however, it is necessary to elaborate on the contents of the sections.

The first section runs from line 1 to line 628. This part gives the details of the theft of a ram from three shepherds’ fold. The three: Coll, Daw, and Gib—suspect an acquaintance of theirs named Mak of the crime, even though the man professes his innocence, “proving” it by the fact that he is sleeping when the three awaken from a night’s slumber. In actuality, however, after he had lulled the shepherds into trusting him to guard the flock, he made off in the night with a fine ram. He took the beast to his wife, and together they plotted a means to cover their deed: hiding the ram in a crib and pretending it is their newborn son. Unfortunately, the suspecting shepherds visit Mak’s domicile, and there, after initially falling for the “false wark,” they find the ram, bleating, in the crib. (p.333 l.614) Surprisingly, however, they forgo any punishment for Mak, despite their anger, and return to the moor at which they had left their sheep.

It is at the 629th line that the second part of The Second Shepherd’s Play begins. An angel appears to Coll, Daw, and Gib on the moor and bids them to travel to Bedlem or Bethlehem to view he “that shall take fro the fiend that Adam had lorn.” (p.334 l.639) The shepherds, moved by the vision, set off for the stable in which the newborn lies. Once there, each praises the “young child… sovereign Savior… full of Godhead.” (p.336 ll.710-28) The Virgin Mary then blesses them and they depart, singing, as the curtain falls.

Now, there are several parallels between these two parts, and these parallels serve to bind the sections into a unified piece. The first parallel is the one between the ram in the crib and Christ in the crib. Though they seem similar by circumstance, in actuality their parallel lies in their contrast. The ram is in the crib by deceitful means: Mak’s theft and his and Gill’s scheming. Conversely, the Christ child lies in his crib through the purest of means: virgin conception from God. In a similar vein, a second, further contrast is made between Gill and Mary. Gill is shown to be a nagging, conniving, hateful woman while Mary, as per popular myth, is a spiritual, concerned, honest woman. Gill, on the one hand, creates an elaborate plot to hide the ram from its rightful owners and curses them when they seek merely to view the baby she claims it to be. Diametrically opposed is the Virgin, who praises God along with the shepherds and who blesses them for their gifts and homage. Clearly, these parallels are there to maintain a flow from section to section and to establish an artistic consistency.

More importantly, however, is the thematic connection between the two parts that can be derived from the above similarities and contrasts. The forgiveness that the shepherds show for Mak is obviously allegorical for Christ’s impending sacrifice on the cross for mankind. In fact, the reader is even lead to believe, by the quick transition from their reprieve to the angel’s entrance, that they have been given the right to view the child because of their sacrifice to, and for, the sinful Mak and Gill.

Therefore, though the two parts seem to be unrelated, in fact, the second part would be nothing more than rehashed mythology were it standing alone. Only with the first story as a foil of the second does the overall theme of sacrifice and forgiveness become clear.  Christians, seeing the shepherds’ kindness, would make this connection to Christ’s kindness and further would realize the importance of similar attitudes in their lives because of the blessings that the shepherds receive. Thus does this mystery play serve to further spread the Word and prove to the believers the validity of their faith; thus does it educate them.

October 2, 1989