Week 459: The Relique, by John Donne

Some poems, like runners, set off at a cracking pace but end up limping to the finishing line. I think, for example, of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet ‘The Windhover’, with its stunning evocation of a kestrel in the first eight lines followed by the disappointment of the contorted last six: ‘Oh, so it was just an excuse for a bit of religion’. And I think this poem by John Donne (1572-1631) is another example. It has a great opening stanza, passionate, direct and mordantly witty, and ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ surely has to be one of English poetry’s most memorable images. But then in the next two stanzas for me the passion and directness peter out, becoming lost in a mere play of ideas, and the poem ends with a tired conventional hyperbole. Still fluent verse, yes, but Donne, like other of the Metaphysicals, sometimes reminds me of a footballer so enamoured of his skill at dribbling the ball as to forget that the point of the game is to score goals.

The Relique

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.

John Donne

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