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