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John Donne and Metaphysical Poetry

What Does Metaphysical Mean?
The word 'meta' means 'after,' so the literal translation of 'metaphysical' is 'after the physical.' Basically, metaphysics deals with questions that can't be explained by science. It questions the nature of reality in a philosophical way.
Here are some common metaphysical questions:
  • Does God exist?
  • Is there a difference between the way things appear to us and the way they really are? Essentially, what is the difference between reality and perception?
  • Is everything that happens already predetermined? If so, then is free choice non-existent?
  • Is consciousness limited to the brain?
Metaphysics can cover a broad range of topics from religious to consciousness; however, all the questions about metaphysics ponder the nature of reality. And of course, there is no one correct answer to any of these questions. Metaphysics is about exploration and philosophy, not about science and math.

Metaphysical poetry, a term coined by Samuel Johnson, has its roots in 17th-century England. This type of poetry is witty, ingenious, and highly philosophical. It topics included love, life and existence. It used literary elements of similes, metaphors, imagery, paradoxes, conceit, and far-fetched views of reality.
John Donne is regarded as the “leading poet” of this highly intellectual form of poetry. Donne was influenced by the belief that the precision of beauty in the adored (loved one) behaved as a commemoration of ideal beauty in the everlasting kingdom (heaven). He also used unconventional and colloquial rhythm and tone, which was highly contrary to the Elizabethan poetry style.
Metaphysical Poetry explores the abstract, emotions, thoughts, feelings, ideas, spiritual things etc. basically things you can’t touch. A highly intellectual form of poetry developed at some point during the 17th century.  John Donne was considered the first metaphysical poet.

John Donne (1572-1637) is a popular English poet, prose writer, and clergyman, considered the greatest of the metaphysical poets and one of the greatest writers of the love poetry.  Donne was born in London; at the age of 11 he entered the University of Oxford, where he studied for three years. According to some accounts, he spent the next three years at the University of Cambridge but took no degree at either university. He began the study of law at Lincoln's Inn, London, in 1592. About two years later, presumably, he relinquished the Roman Catholic faith, in which he had been brought up, and joined the Anglican Church.

On his return to England, Donne was appointed private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, keeper of Great Seal, in 1598. Donne's secret marriage in 1601 to Egerton's niece, Anne More, resulted in his dismissal from the position and brief imprisonment. A cousin of his wife offered the couple refuge in Pyrford, surrey. While there, Donne's wrote his longest poem, The Progresses of the Soule (1601), which ironically depicts the transmigration of the soul of Eve's apple. During the next few years Donne made a meagre (thin) living as a lawyer, serving chiefly as counsel for Thomas Morton, an anti-Roman Catholic pamphleteer. Donne may have collaborated with Morton in writing pamphlet that appeared under Morton's name from 1604 to 1607. Donne's principal literary accomplishments during this period were Divine poems (1607) and the prose work Biathanatos (posthumously published 1644). In the later he argued that suicide is not intrinsically sinful. In 1608 reconciliation was effected between Donne and his father-in-law, and his wife received a much-needed dowry. Donne continued to write poetry, notably his Holy Sonnets (1618), but most of it remained unpublished until 1633. In 1621 James I appointed him dean of Saint Paul's cathedral; he held that post until his death. His friendship with the essayist and poet Izaak Walton, who later wrote a moving (although somewhat inaccurate) biography of Donne, began in 1624. While convalescing from a severe illness, Donne wrote Devotions upon emergent Occasions.

The poetry of Donne is characterized by complex imagery and irregularity of form. He frequently employed the conceit, an elaborate metaphor making striking synthesis of apparently unrelated objects or ideas. His intellectuality, and use of colloquial diction, seemingly unpoetic but always uniquely precise in meaning and connotation, makes his poetry boldly divergent from the smooth, elegant verse of his day. The content of his love poetry, often both cynical and sensuous, represents a reaction against the sentimental Elizabethan sonnet, and this work influenced the attitudes of the cavalier poets.

The Relic is a poem in which Donne makes fun of the superstitions attached to the 'purely' platonic ideas of love; he also manages to satirize the society's blind prohibition against the attachment between the sexes. The persona addresses his beloved, with whom he has not yet been allowed to be intimate. They have only kissed out of the courtesy at meeting and parting, but not yet otherwise.

He has taken a strand of hair from the lady out of love; and he has bound it around his wrist. Now he imagines that after some centuries, when superstitious people dig up the grave in order to bury another dead body, they will find this strand of hair around his wrist (still not decayed!) and begin to make myths about it. The digger will interpret that the man (the speaker, when dead and dug up) had bound the strand of hair of his beloved so as to make it magically possible for him to meet his beloved (whose hair is magical). He will take that the bone and hair to the king and the bishop and request them to declare the two as saints of love.  It is funny that the two have done nothing of the sort in reality. The speaker implicitly requests the lady not to worry because at least that kind of canonization might happen in the future. Those foolish people will regard the hair and bones as things for doing miracle by the lovers; to the man, the miracle is a different one. He does regard that his beloved is a real miracle, however. He is writing the present poem to tell the truth to those who will read and know the reality of those future times when people will make nonsense myths out of such incidents. In a sense, the poem is a satire on the superstitious ideas of love and magic, rather than believing in the actual contact and attachment between man and woman. The 'relic' of the title refers to the hair and bone that people will declare relic out of superstitious belief. A relic means 'a thing belonging to a person who is believed to possess saintly or magical power preserved for its religious or magical value'. The poem is a pure product of fancy. The persona here comes close to being critical of the lady who seems to have allowed nothing more than formal kisses and a strand of hair a keepsake. We know that, physical contact, in Donne's philosophy of love, is essential even for spiritual love and physical contacts are not absent even from this admirable lyric. There is, to the man, first the bracelet of the beloved's hair tied round the lover's wrist, and thus uniting him physically as well as spiritually to her. Secondly, there are kisses which he could exchange. Further, the poet expressly states that a love which is purely spiritual is a miracle of nature, and not an ordinary human being. The lyric is based on a tension between spiritual and physical love and the tension is not resolved. The poem is perhaps one of the most subtle and implicit in Donne's corpus.

Synopsis of the Poem

The Relic is a lyric poem consisting of three stanzas of eleven lines each. As with numerous other English Metaphysical lyrics, the stanza form and rhyme scheme are unusual and perhaps unique. The pattern of five rhymes in each stanza is aabbcddceee, while the meter of lines is complex and somewhat irregular but basically iambic and effectively supplements the poem’s thematic development. The four weighty iambic pentameter lines that conclude each stanza reinforce a change of tone from flippant or cynical to serious.

John Donne relies heavily on a first-person speaker who comes across as both worldly and spiritual, each quality being carried to an extreme. At the beginning, the speaker projects himself into the future when, long after his death, his bones are disinterred to make room for another burial. The macabre image of a disturbed grave contrasts with another more pleasant image. The grave digger, Donne asserts, will discover a bracelet of bright hair about the bone of the speaker’s forearm. The hair represents the mistress, the “she” of the poem, just as the bones represent the speaker. Once the remains have been discovered, the perspective shifts from the speaker to the grave digger. The sexton may leave the grave without further disturbance, thinking that the “couple” is a pair of lovers who used the device of the hair so that at Judgment Day their souls might meet at the grave and enjoy a visit.

In this poem, John Donne shows the strength of his love and his conviction that he and his beloved will remain in the pages of the poems and they will be role models for the future generations.

The poet says that one-day gravediggers will exhumate their grave; he will find out the token of their love- the lock of hair. This will let him remember an undying loving coupe.

Then he will bring them to a bishop or a king on order to declare them as relic. The lady will be Mary Magdalen and the speaker will be something matching to this, perhaps Christ or any other. This pair will be appreciated by women and they will remain in the page of poems. The future generations will read their names.

The poet gives reasons why they will be so honored: they loved even not knowing why and what longed of. They did not do anything more than their ancestors do. They did not break and seal or they did not make sexual contact.

Critical analysis of the Poem

Although its title suggests a religious poem, The Relic is in reality a celebration of platonic love and a poem of compliment. The poem’s pervasive religious diction and imagery establish a framework for celebrating a platonic relationship between the poem’s speaker and his mistress. However, the complexity of both religion and love as themes invites multilevel meanings and ambiguities, and the poem is fraught with these. Donne is at his most ingenious and obscure as he develops the tropes and witty hyperboles of the lyric.

In his numerous songs and sonnets, Donne offers extremely varied treatments of love as a theme, from the most cynical and blatantly sexual to the most idealized, platonic form. “The Relic” employs a highly charged religious context to celebrate an ideal, chaste love. In the poems that reflect a positive attitude toward love, whether sexual or ideal, Donne frequently depicts the love as unique, special to the speaker and his mistress, even arcane and elevating, and apt to be misunderstood by ordinary people. The love celebrated in “The Relic” is mystical; not even those who share it can understand it. This hieratic view of love is implied by the sexton, who is puzzled by the remains he discovers, and then by the speaker’s urge to explain it to a later age. The thinly veiled implication is that people in the later age, like those in the present, will be incapable of understanding the lovers’ virtue because they cannot approach it.

It is a tribute to Donne’s imaginative genius that he derives a transcendently noble theme from an initial, macabre image. In this regard, “The Relic” represents a sharp contrast with its companion poem “The Funeral,” which employs similar macabre imagery. In “The Funeral,” Donne uses the device of a woman’s hair and a recently deceased corpse as a kind of consolation for unrequited love. The speaker, who proclaims that he will be discovered dead with a wreath of her hair about his arm, protests that he intends to bury some of her because she would have none of him. In contrast, the speaker in “The Relic” celebrates a long-enduring, chaste love that is comforting but too mystical to be fully understood.

The persona is suggesting that their bodies may be mistaken for holy relics- the lover besides him may be Mary Magdalen, the Saint, which makes him a something else thereby, or one of his lover. Mary Magdalen makes him is mentioned by name. She lies beside the persona in the grave. The persona goes on to state that the gravedigger should respect their privacy and let them be. The grave-digger at a distance time in the future may discern that this memento of love-the lock of hair-will reunite them during moments of resurrection. Even at that hour, when souls are scattered without worldly relationships, the relic will act as their bond. The soul of the speaker and his beloved may meet again for a "little stay". If their bodies were mistaken for holy relics, then they would taken to a bishop or a king where everyone would appreciate them and consider them to a miracles. The couple was in love and knew not why, they where faithful to God.

The poems believe that they will be role models for others lover. He and his love follow love primarily, and not God; this explains the 'mis-devotion' He seems to imply that through their worldly love, they will attain the divine stature of heavenly saints. Therefore, she may become a Mary Magdalen, the Saint, that may turn render the speaker into "a something else thereby", probably Christ or her lovers. Their bodies would serve the function of holy relics, as they would be bought to a bishop or a king. They would then be a source of miracle and adoration, for everybody. The poet claims hoe his poem (paper) would serve to illustrate how their harmless love gave way to miracles just by virtue of innocence. The poet says that there was no reason for their love, it was natural. There was no difference of sex, implying gender.

Undying Love vs Death

This poem displays the religious side of Donne's works. As with other poems of his, he describes love using a very unromantic image: two corpses in a grave. Yet he attempts to make this image romantic, suggesting the grave-digger will not disturb them when he sees 'a bracelet of bright hair about the bone' because this love token will make him think that a loving couple are lying there. The most important things is that the poem is not about death or just love in general, but undying love. Donne suggests that even when they long dead, their love will live on. Perhaps when they are discovered one day, they will be thought of as 'relics'.

The first stanza though it talks about mortal human beings, reflects immortal love in the same tone. The speaker refers to the exhumation of his and his lover's grave. The exhumer notes a "bracelet of bright hair" on the poet that appears to belong to his lady-love. Therefore, it renders into an emblematic relic of something that unites the two lovers. The piece if hair is dead tissue by itself, though it talks of undying love.  Grierson assets that the poem is addressed to Mrs. Magdalen Herbert.

In the next stanza, Mary Magdalen is mentioned by name. This may be affirmed by the fact the Renaissance painters depicted Mary Magdalen with Golden hair. She lies besides the persona in the grave. The persona goes on to state the gravedigger should respect their privacy and let them be. The notion of death and the passage of time are emphasized though the reiteration of words like 'bone', 'grave', etc. the grave-digger at a distance time future may discern that this memento of resurrection. Even at that hour, when souls are scattered without worldly relationships, the relic will act as their bond. The souls of the speaker and his beloved may meet again for a "little stay".

The second stanza is about elevating themselves to a paradigm that others may worship. He and his love followed love primarily, and not God; this explain the 'miss-devotion'. He seems to imply that through their worldly love, they will attain the divine stature of heavenly saints. Therefore she may become a Mary Magdalen, the saint; that may in turn render the speaker into "a something else thereby", probably Christ or one of his lover. Their bodies would serve the function of holy relics, as they would be bought to "a bishop or a king." They would then be a source of miracle and adoration for everyone. The poet claims how his poem (paper) would serve to illustrative how harmless love gave way to miracles, just by virtue of its innocence.

The poet says that there was no reason for their love, it was natural. There was no difference of sex, implying gender. Here, the poet may refer to the spirituality of their union, of neutrality of the same.  Furthermore, he may allude to the fact that religious, guardian angles and God is beyond the concept of gender. They did not put on a display of their love "between meals" which may connote, Jesus and Jesus' disciples having supper that may further foreground the emblem of Jesus. "Our hands ne'er touched the seals, which nature, injured by late law, sets free" exemplifies that love should not be bound by rules and constraints. The poet points to the original fee state of created nature when they were no restrictions or impositions on love.


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