The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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. This conceit is...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The devices of “The Relic” are complex and intricate, with brilliant imagery and characterization. The macabre beginning and cynical tone suggest a poem that will conclude with wry pessimism or cynicism. Instead, the lyric offers a positive affirmation upholding the value of love. Personification is perhaps the most ingenious device that the poet employs. Objects such as the grave are personified, but Donne goes beyond his normally strained meanings by making the bones represent the speaker’s character and the wreath of hair represent the mistress. While the first-person speaker sees his bones becoming his character in a later age, he also retains his own authorial persona, asserting that his address in “this paper” (the poem) will explain the miracles they have wrought to the audience. The speaker’s alteration between a tone of hard worldliness and a spiritual, idealistic side creates a vivid, dramatic contrast. The grave digger also becomes an important personage in the poem, for he reacts to what he sees in different ways. Even a generalized audience is conjured up as the two lovers become objects of devotion, adored by “All womenand some men.”

The work reveals the typical obscurantism of Metaphysical poetry, including allusions to esoteric ideas and outmoded concepts such as the more extreme Renaissance concepts of the Apocalypse and the practice of removing bones from graves after a time and placing them in a charnel house in order to...

(The entire section is 576 words.)