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

Week 233: Quand vous serez bien vieille, by Pierre de Ronsard/The Apparition, by John Donne

Two for the price of one this week, as I thought they would make an interesting comparison. Both poems deal with what seems to be an occupational hazard of male poets: the fact of women not fancying them as much as they feel entitled to be fancied. But the spirit of the two poems is very different. Ronsard’s poem is grave, beautiful and not without compassion for the woman as he imagines her in her old age; Donne’s poem is more punchy, full of a jagged energy and vengeful to the point of vindictiveness. I value both poems greatly, but do you not get the feeling that that Ronsard’s poem, beautiful though it is, has something of the rhetorical exercise about it, while Donne really does have it in for this poor woman and doesn’t care who knows it?

Note on line 6 of the Donne poem: It was a common belief that candles guttered in the presence of ghosts.

The translation from the French is my own.

Quand vous serez bien vieille

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os:
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos:
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène, 1578

When you are old and sit by candlelight
Spinning your wool at the fireside, then declare,
As you read out my lines for your delight,
‘Ronsard once feted me when I was fair’.

Then not a servant-girl, knowing my fame,
Though she be half-asleep in labour’s daze,
But suddenly will wake, to hear his name
Who blessed your own with such immortal praise.

By then I shall be bodiless, a shade
At rest now in some myrtle-shadowed glade
And you old, at the fireside, stooped and gray,

Regretting my lost love and your proud scorn.
Then trust me, live, and never for the morn,
But pluck life’s roses now, that will not stay.

The Apparition

When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir’d before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.

John Donne (1573-1631)