What allusions does John Donne use in "The Relic"?

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The Relic” by John Donne uses religious, archaic, and cultural allusions in order to portray the relationship between the poet and his pious “Mary Magdalen” (line 17). The poem is broken into three stanzas, the first of which discusses the rather macabre moment when the poet will be rediscovered by a gravedigger. The second and final stanzas discuss the honorable and even mystical nature of their relationship, concluding with a catalog of their miracles.

In lines 1 through 4, when the poet states that his “grave [will be] broke up again/ [for] Some second guest to entertain,” he is referring to the practice of gravediggers reusing plots for multiple corpses. This practice can also be seen in Hamlet when Ophelia is buried in the grave of the jester Yorick. The poet declares this convention a “woman-head,” the archaic form of “womanhood,” in that it is a female trait to take in more than one man in a bed (line 3).

The poet states that the gravedigger will then find a “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” (line 6). This is a reference to the Elizabethan practice of keeping momento mori, or remembrance of death, of a loved one. It is this last, vibrant artifact that the poet feels will allow them to be reunited on the “last busy day,” an allusion to Judgment Day (line 10).

In the second stanza, Donne makes clear that the saint worship he is referring to is taking place in a country of “mis-devotion” (line 13). In other words, this poem is occurring in a country apart from England both physically and theologically. In the era of the Anglican Church and the Reformation, it is important for Donne to make this distinction to avoid claims of heresy and idol worship.

One of the most important allusions throughout the poem occurs in line 17 when the poet refers to his platonic lover as a “Mary Magdalen.” Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute and follower of Jesus Christ. This allusion not only places the female figure in a holy and pious light, it positions the poet in the space of the divine. The use of “Magdalen” is also often cited as a reference to Mrs. Magdalen Herbert, a woman whom Donne shared correspondence with for a period of his life.

The third and final stanza lists the various miracles that this saintly couple accomplished in their time together. This is an allusion to the list of miracles performed by someone for possible canonization. He states that they “loved well and faithfully” and “Difference of sex no more [they] knew,/ Than [their] guardian angels do” (lines 23, 25-26). Much like the angels that watch over them, their love is sexless and wholly chaste. Their “hands ne’er touched the seals/ Which nature, injured by late law, sets free” (lines 29-20). The “seals” Donne is referring to are the couple’s sexual organs and the “late law” is the societal and human laws that they are bound to, which may be one day broken by nature.

While it is probable that Donne has included far more allusions into this multilayered text, these are a few of the thematically important references that you should address and focus on as a reader.

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