Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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.