"Donne's genius, temperament and learning gave to his love poems certain qualities which immediately arrest attention". Explain.

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This quotation, which comes from Sir Herbert Grierson’s book Metaphysical Poems and Lyrics of the Seventeenth Century (1921), expresses a common reaction to many of Donne’s love poems.  One especially good illustration of Grierson’s claim can be found in Donne’s poem “The Relic.”

Certainly this poem “immediately arrest[s] attention” in its very opening lines:

When my grave is broke up again

Some second guest to entertain . . . (2)

It is hard to think of another poem that begins so strangely, with a reference to the common Renaissance practice of exhuming previously buried bodies from graves in order to bury fresh bodies in their places (a practice on display, also, in the "grave-digger" scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Here as so often elsewhere in his poetry, Donne likes to catch his readers off-guard.  Another startling image from the same poem is the reference to "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone" (6) of the speaker's skeletal arm.

Lines such as the ones just quoted reflect the nature of Donne’s temperament, which was often witty, unconventional, inventive, and slyly humorous. It was a temperament that often allowed him to use the language of secular love in religious poems and the language of religious love in secular poems.

Yet “The Relic” also reflects the depth and breadth of Donne’s learning, as in his allusion to Judgment Day (10), his echo of the Bible (17-18), and his clever allusions to common Renaissance doctrines of love (23-24).

All in all, "The Relic" is a superb illustration of all three of Grierson's claims about Donne's love poetry.


A common reaction to reading Donne’s love poems is to think that only a genius could have concocted works that are at once so witty, so substantive, so thought-provoking, and so unusual.


Read the study guide:
John Donne's Songs and Sonnets

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