Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sara Morrison: "Donne's Relic-Making"

Sara Morrison
William Jewell College 

A “pleasing sacrifice”: Relic-Making in John Donne’s Lyric Poetry

1> John Donne’s “The Relique” opens with the speaker’s meditations on what might happen to his and his lover’s bodies after death. He first imagines that their mutual grave will be disturbed to accommodate another corpse. Although he describes this invasion as inevitable, he hopes that the gravedigger will oppose customary practice and leave them alone when he sees a remnant, a relic, of their living bodies: “a bracelet of bright haire about the bone” (6).[1] Synecdochal of their earthly love, the hair performs two roles: first, as inspiration for the gravedigger to re-cover their grave, and second, as a mnemonic device for the lovers’ resurrected souls, so that they might reconvene in the afterlife. If the sight of the hair changes the gravedigger’s course of action, the hair then functions successfully as an active relic, transforming the viewer. The speaker is not convinced of the hair’s efficacy, however, and so he imagines another way for the dead lovers to influence the gravedigger. If he refuses to sanctify their grave as a resurrection rendezvous, the speaker imagines that perhaps the gravedigger will take their bodies to “the Bishop, and the King” to be sanctioned as relics that can perform miracles (15). As such, the lovers’ bodies would be capable of transforming many viewers, and their miracles would not be forgotten in the grave of time, since, as the speaker insists, poetry would resurrect the relics’ actions: “and since at such time, miracles are sought, / I would have that age by this paper taught / What miracles wee harmelesse lovers wrought” (20-22). Poetry can narrate the lovers’ “miracles” and can therefore save them from silent death; however, in this case, it falls short when its task is to describe the beauty of the speaker’s lover. “But now alas,” mourns the speaker, “All measure, and all language, I should passe, / Should I tell what a miracle shee was” (31-33). The same language that can describe the ineffable is too limited to describe the mortal.

2> “The Relique” reveals quite explicitly Donne’s interest in material relics, but when faced with the possibility that his poetic relics lack affective muscle, the speaker invokes rather more conventional tropes of a poem’s immortality. The “paper” may be able to teach its readers of the “miracles wee harmelesse lovers wrought,” even though the speaker is unable to describe his beloved (22). When he stops short of blazoning her, acknowledging the limits of encomiastic language, the speaker gestures toward the possibility that what’s wrought from blazonic language can function as a substitute for lost relics. Once officially sanctioned as relics, the lovers can be seen, and their miracles can teach people how to love “well and faithfully” (23). Such miracles rooted in action can be described; but she is a miracle and so defies blazonic description. Elsewhere, Donne relies on such language to describe the body, and in most cases, the poet-speaker himself confers sanctity on the blazoned body, elevating disarticulated body parts to relics. Poetic blazon is the vehicle through which the poet-speaker creates lively relics of ordinary bodies. In those instances, the dismembered body used for poetic preservation is much like the martyred body, because it is reduced to an amalgam of parts or relics to which a viewer has access. Here, blazoned relics are not static artifacts; rather, like medieval relics, they have the potential to engage, even alter, their viewer or reader. Because poetic blazons both house and represent the fragmented body, they function as reliquaries that themselves actively engage their readers, guiding their view. Just as medieval reliquaries often focus the eye on the relic housed inside, the poetic blazon, too, directs the reader to one particular body part at a time. Moreover, as Caroline Walker Bynum has observed, there is a synecdochal identification of reliquary with relic, such that the reliquary that houses the relic shares its inhabitant’s curative powers.[2] Such identification of the aesthetic with the material allows for a reading of Donne’s blazons as both reliquary and relic: poetic blazons both produce active bodily relics and are the lens through which a viewer experiences them.

3> Critical discussion of the Renaissance blazon has been informed by the idea that poetic blazon silences the blazoned subject. A tool of self-actualization for the poet, the blazon dismembers the subject either to affirm the poet’s integral identity, to endear him to a patron, or to display his command of the poetic form, among others. Whatever the presumed mid-range goal, the blazoner’s desired end is mastery. This critical tradition owes much to the influential work of Nancy Vickers, whose triangular model maps poetic description as a conversation between men, which effectively renders the female subject arbitrary and silent.[3] In her recent discussion of the blazon, Catherine Bates locates a sea change in critical understanding of the blazoner. Drawing on Vickers’ ideas about Acteon, “the iconic figure that stands behind every blasonneur and whose mythic story shadows every scene of voyeuristic looking and bodily partition,” which suggest that the blazoner fragments the female subject in defense of his own subjectivity, Bates argues instead that the blazoner’s subjectivity is unstable and vulnerable.[4] Such mastery is elusive, thereby disrupting the myth of the stable writing—and reading—subject; I argue, therefore, that the blazoned subject’s silence is likewise unstable. In this model, voyeurism is welcome, not forbidden, as the blazoned subject’s afterlife relies on such looking. Acteon is destroyed by his own hounds, yet the relic’s response to the voyeur is not compulsorily punitive but can be restorative as well.

4> The blazoned subject’s body is much like the martyred body: both are reduced to an amalgam of parts capable of post-partition activity. Relics resulting from martyrdom or from poetic blazon are effective because of their visibility; when a viewer adores (or abhors) them, they, in turn, transform the viewer. Thus, a relic’s effectiveness relies on an audience. The metonymy of part to whole is critical to an understanding of the interaction between viewer and relic: “If a martyr was present in every minute bit of his dust, if he cured the sick and raised the dead, then both decay and partition could be overcome.”[5] The belief that the whole martyr, including his or her restorative powers, was encapsulated in each body part helped to explain not only whole-body resurrection but also the healing capabilities of sanctified, dismembered parts. Martyrs’ relics often were housed in reliquaries, which facilitated public viewing and individual access to the relic. In the case of poetic relics, the poem itself functions as the reliquary—it allows for communal viewing, and it guides the reader’s eye precisely.

5> Reliquaries partially or wholly conceal the relic housed inside, yet they point to what they conceal; concealment is also revelation. Such is the rhetorical function of the blazon; the metaphors that conceal the body (whether expressing adoration or repulsion) also reveal it. Eroding the dichotomy of container and contained, reliquaries “reveal fragmentation but mask decay,”[6] housing relics, parts of bodies, but hiding the gross materiality of death. In doing so, they function also as “memoria of the saints, reminders of the glorified bodies we will receive in heaven.”[7] As a comfort to early Christians, the memoria reminded them that their mortal body could escape post-mortem decay. For reasons both material and psychic, distinguishing relic from reliquary became increasingly difficult in the later Middle Ages, “suggest[ing] not only that the bone is the saint but also perhaps that the reliquary is the relic.”[8]

6> Such an ontology informs the process and effect of reading the blazon: the distancing of the viewer from the relic itself and the transforming of reliquary into relic. The aesthetic image is equal to the physical relic; it is a kind of second-degree relic, capable of performing as does its “original.” Not exactly a copy of the relic, the reliquary nonetheless accomplishes the same degree of cultural work as does the relic it houses. Some reliquaries were elaborate shrines that contained nooks in the structure, providing worshippers access to the shrine, and thus to the saint: “Pilgrims seeking favors would touch or place their bodies within these niches believing that a miraculous power permeated the whole structure.”[9] Cradled by the shrine, the pilgrim was surrounded by both reliquary and relic. Indeed, if only temporarily, the pilgrim shared the reliquary’s compartmentalized internal space with the relic. Nestled in the niche, the pilgrim accessed the relic through the shrine, distanced from the physical relic itself, but closely connected to its aesthetic image. While readers cannot experience the ontological materiality of Donne’s rhetorical relics, they can perhaps encircle themselves within blazonic language. The poem itself is the aesthetic image through which readers access its relics.

7> Such linguistic relics may have been acceptable to a culture divided on issues of religious materiality. In an attempt to control the adoration of Mary, Queen of Scots’ relics, for example, “the English immediately turned to curtailing Mary’s unsanctioned spectacularization as saintly martyr or mater dolorosa, as onlookers were carefully prevented from acquiring any relics of the execution scene.”[10] Such efforts of the Elizabethan government, which also included “encas[ing] her coffin in an inordinate amount of lead,” delaying her burial in Peterborough Cathedral for five months, and burying her “in the middle of the night” acknowledged the potential for Mary Stuart’s relics to threaten religious reform. [11] Such relics were disruptive because of their materiality. Poetic relics, on the other hand, may have seemed less so because of their immateriality. Of the sanctity of poetic relics, Arthur Marotti suggests that “After Catholic relics came under attack, starting with the depredations of the late 1530s, when the shrine of Thomas à Becket was destroyed and his bones scattered, the reverence for relics began to migrate into print culture, where the remains of a person were verbal.”[12] But poetic blazon, it seems to me, exceeds the verbal, recruiting and reviving the person’s physical nature as well. As many of Donne’s sermons attest, he preached often about the resurrected body, expressing hopeful assurance in postmortem physical integrity. Donne’s interest in the rhetorical capability not only to fragment the body, which can potentially confer sanctity on both blazoned subject and viewer, but also to rejoin its parts may itself have been a remnant of his ancestral Catholicism in a climate unsympathetic to its material signs. As suggested earlier, some of Donne’s blazoned bodies do not function as active relics, but rather as static icons unable to transform their viewers. Yet, this is not consistently so. Rather, some of Donne’s blazoned subjects lose their bodily integrity only to be resuscitated by the very medium of their destruction.

8> Donne’s Elegy, “The Comparison,” yokes together both poetic blazon and images of martyrdom, demonstrating his athletic experimentation with relics’ transformative capabilities. In this elegy, Donne alternates blazon and anti-blazon to compare the speaker’s mistress with another man’s. Likening the latter woman to martyrs, the speaker acknowledges her potential to alter those with whom she comes into contact; but in this case, such transformations are dangerous to the viewer, as he insists that her diseased body is infectious. He fears that she confers not sanctity but disease. Yet she herself is sanctified, restored by the blazon that undoes her. Unlike “The Relique,” “The Comparison” thus illustrates the way in which blazon and anti-blazon produce effective active relics, which in this case, transform through the tactile as well as the visual.

9> Opening with a comparison not of the two women’s breasts and necks—traditional objects of a blazon—but of the sweat clinging to the mistresses’ skin, the speaker expresses fear that female bodily fluids are lively, capable of transmitting disease to other bodies (both male and female). Described as “ranke sweaty froth…like spermatique issue’of ripe menstruous boiles” (7-8), the other mistress’ sweat is pungent, tactile, and the product of reproductive boils. And, like its progenitor, the sweat is generative: the “spermatique issue” can reproduce itself.[13] Her sweat is thus infectious, and physical contact with her dangerous. Continuing his insistence that the other mistress’ filth is contagious, the speaker asks his friend: “Are not your kisses then as filthy, ’and more, / As a worme sucking an invenom’d sore?” (43-44). Kissing his mistress is like ingesting poison. The speaker’s anti-blazon of his friend’s mistress exposes his fear that her body, the relics of his blazon, can infect her sexual partners. In contrast, the speaker describes his own mistress’s sweat

“As the sweet sweat of Roses in a Still,
As that which from chaf’d muskats pores doth trill,
As the Almighty Balme of th’early East,
Such are the sweat drops of my Mistris breast,
And on her necke her skin such lustre sets,
They seeme no sweat drops, but pearle carcanetts.” (1-6)

10> Even though the speaker is here describing sweat, he likens her drops of perspiration to that of fragrant roses and to “the Almighty Balme of th’early East,” which are familiar encomiastic images. Whereas the other mistress’ perspiration is described as infectious and thus dangerous, the speaker’s mistress’ sweat is “lustrous,” strangely beautiful, and non-threatening. But the final description of them, in which the speaker redefines them not as “sweat drops, but pearle carcanetts,” conflates the language of adornment and punishment. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “carcanet” as “an ornamental collar or necklace, usually of gold or set with jewels,” but it also defines “carcan,” as “an iron collar used for punishment.”[14] Reading the mistress’ sweat either as a jeweled necklace or as an iron collar draws together traditions of Petrarchan rhetoric and physical torture, locating her body as the site of praise and pain, thereby likening it to the martyred body. By blurring the boundaries between ideal Petrarchan beauty and martyr, the poem begins to establish the mistresses as not entirely dissimilar. The elegy gestures toward the primary mistress’ martyrdom and her infectious capability, yet by comparison, she is less threatening than her counterpart. Not quite an active relic because her martyrdom is incomplete, the mistress functions as a model by which to understand the other mistress as capable of transforming others.

11> Drawing on language both anti-encomiastic and martyrological, the speaker enlists anti-blazons to describe the other mistress’ skin. In lines 29-32, for example, the speaker compares her skin to that of men who have been dismembered and displayed for public view:

“Like rough bark’d elmboughes, or the russet skin
Of men late scurg’d for madnes, or for sinne,
Like Sun-parch’d quarters on the citie gate,
Such is thy tann’d skins lamentable state.” (29-32)

12> The comparison in this anti-blazon echoes established Petrarchan tradition: the speaker insists that the other mistress’ dark skin is “lamentable,” less desirable than his own mistress’ “white beauty-keeping chest” (23). But the tropes rely on the visible markers of violence—flogging and dismemberment—to describe her. At issue in the similes employed to express degree of skin pigmentation is corporeal torture, mutilation, and the display of body parts. The “men” have “russet skin” because they have been “scurg’d,” or flogged, for “madnes, or for sinne”; their skin has been made “russet.” Similarly, the “quarters on the citie gate” are “Sun-parch’d”; they, too, have been darkened, reddened by the sun. While ostensibly focusing on skin pigmentation, both images evoke violent ontological change. Like this tortured skin, “such is” the other mistress’ skin; it is “tann’d,” changed by the sun but also evoking the process of making leather, which must be preceded by flaying an animal’s skin. In both images, the men’s transgressions—madness, sin, treason—linger as visible markers of behavior not officially sanctioned. She is like them, a martyr for her “sinnes.” And, her skin, in a “lamentable state,” is capable of both expressing grief and causing onlookers to pity her.

13> The poem dramatizes this threat to bodily integrity of which the speaker warns his interlocutor. The speaker cautions the other man against the mistress’ “ripe menstruous boiles” (8), her “worme eaten trunkes, cloth’d in seals skin, / Or grave, that’s dust without, and stinke within” (25-26), and perhaps most threatening, her “dread mouth of a fired gunne” (39). What is dangerous about her body is not her particular filth, but that her diseased body can infect the men who touch her. “Are not your kisses then as filthy, ’and more,” the speaker asks, “As a worme sucking an invenom’d sore?” (43-44). If one of this Petrarchan quadrangle’s four points is diseased, then the other three points are in jeopardy, since “kisses” breed disease. Yet it is precisely her diseased body that is powerful: the speaker fears her sexuality because he fears that she could kill him. It is ironic then that his comparisons—his blazons of her—transfer his (de)generative talent to her. Her “ripe menstruous boiles,” her “invenom’d sore,” her “warts,” her “weals,” are effective blazonic relics—she threatens to alter men physically with whom she comes into contact. Here, the blazoned woman is not a powerless, partitioned object. Even though she is repulsive to the speaker, her filth evokes fear in him that is visceral. By blazoning her using images of martyrdom, the speaker acknowledges her potentially destructive influence, which he fears can poison not just her lover but the speaker’s mistress and the speaker himself.

14> The final series of comparisons illustrates the speaker’s fear that his friend’s sexual contact with his mistress can infect each lover. His descriptions of sex are violent, yet the speaker tries to soften his own experience by using words like “reverent” (50). When describing the other couple, the speaker asks his friend: “Is not your last act harsh, and violent, / As when a Plough a stony ground doth rent?” (47-48) Yet the speaker’s description of his own sexual act is paradoxically encomiastic:

 “[…] so devoutly nice
Are Priests in handling reverent sacrifice,
And such in searching wounds the Surgeon is
As wee, when wee embrace, or touch, or kisse.” (49-52)

15> In language couched in terms of partition and voyeurism, the speaker compares sex with his own mistress first to religious sacrifice and second to medical examination. Both are encoded with the potential for death and the invasive gaze of the public eye, either on the altar or in the anatomy theaters.[15] Here, the comparisons that the speaker has tried to keep distinct start to converge. Whether explicitly violent or more subtly “reverent,” sex partitions both mistresses’ bodies, and begins to make vulnerable their lovers’ bodies as well. Curiously, this account of sex neglects to name any specific body parts, instead using synecdoche to suggest the body parts that the lovers use to “embrace, or touch, or kisse” (52). In this way, the description acts as a reliquary through which to view the enclosed bodies, distancing viewers from the precise body part, yet allowing them to “search” for it successfully. Unlike “The Relique” whose blazon the speaker fears may produce static icons only, “The Comparison” is a poem that dramatizes poetic blazon’s capability to produce active relics. Moreover, here the blazon itself functions as an aesthetic reliquary, housing the relics and directing readers’ eyes toward them, warning them against transgression or perhaps offering a model of secular sanctity.

16> Among Donne’s blazons are those that allow for self-examination; in these instances, the speaker becomes his own voyeur, exploring the possibility of his own sanctity. In “Loves Exchange,” for example, the speaker combines an invitation for self-martyrdom with an implicit challenge to its efficacy. By doing so, he neutralizes the damaging effects of Love’s torture, representing himself as an active relic and thereby challenging death. Self-blazons allow the speaker to partition his own body, creating of himself relics that dispense grace beyond the grave. Because there is nothing doctrinally heretical about self-examination, Donne’s self-blazons create acceptable relics that invite voyeurs. In “Loves Exchange,” the speaker invites “future Rebells” to examine his “Rack’t carcass” so that they might avoid love’s tortures (38, 42).

“[…] if I must example bee
To future Rebells; If th’unborne
Must learne, by my being cut up, and torne:
Kill, and dissect me, Love; for this
Torture against thine owne end is,
Rack’t carcasses make ill Anatomies.” (37-42)

17> The “if” clauses suggest that “future Rebells” can learn from the speaker’s dissected body; however, his directive to Love to “kill and dissect” him reveals the didactic limits of dissection. Although the speaker invites Love’s torture and dissection, he warns that his partition will not serve Love’s ends—tortured carcasses make poor subjects of study. The speaker’s challenge to Love is a curious one, since he hopes to outwit Love by inviting him to “cut up” and tear his body. This challenge is all the more curious because the speaker seems to invite not dismemberment but vivisection—Love “enrage[s]” him, “yet kills not.” This is a reluctant martyr who resists corporeal torture. But when faced with it, the speaker curiously attempts to maintain control by undermining the mangled body’s active power. In “The Comparison,” active relics are powerful, granting lively autonomy (for better or worse) to the blazoned body. Here, however, the speaker resists Love’s torture and so downplays relics’ effect. Unable ultimately to stave it off, if he “must example bee,” then he seeks comfort in his relics’ power to teach “future Rebells.” The speaker wants it both ways. He envisions his own vivisection, but he does not cut himself open; he is at Love’s whim.

18> Even so, he is unwilling to concede control; to challenge Love’s torture, he imagines his vivisected body as a set of active relics. Such attempts at control of one’s posthumous body reach beyond the imaginative, however, and so might seem familiar to some of Donne’s readers. In his discussion of Southwell’s execution, Arthur Marotti observes that Southwell attempted to manage his own relic production:

“Southwell apparently gave his cap to the Keeper of Newgate prison who treated it, in effect, as a relic….[And] when Southwell got to the place of execution after being dragged on a hurdle through the muddy streets, he cleaned his face with a cloth that he then threw to someone in the crowd….The third holy object was the rosary Southwell threw from the scaffold to a friend.”[16]

19> While only a select few had contact with Southwell’s physical relics, many more had access to his writings, which, as Marotti notes, the publisher William Leake associated with his dismembered body.[17] Such ideas echo Donne’s spectrum of concerns, which focuses not only on death, dismemberment, and resurrection but also on the literary management of such events.

20> Donne’s representation of the dismembered self as a corpus of active relics functions as a post-partition control mechanism, since corporeal torture cannot silence the relics’ productive influence. By constructing a paradigm that assuages the terrors of dismemberment, Donne seeks to manage the uncertainty of death. But this is only a temporary fix for the loss of control that death brings, a kind of purgatory for the dismembered, decaying body. Resurrection raises a host of new challenges; chief among them is the condition of the resurrected body. Although in poems like “Loves Exchange,” Donne explores ways to cope with vivisection and death, other poems express concern that the afterlife render the body intact. In “The Autumnall,” for example, the speaker rehearses practical problems posed for bodily resurrection.

“If transitory things, which soone decay,
Age must be lovelyest at the latest day.
But name not Winter-faces, whose skin’s slacke;
Lanke, as an unthrifts purse; but a soules sacke;
Whose Eyes seeke light within, for all here’s shade;
Whose mouthes are holes, rather worne out, then made;
Whose every tooth to’a severall place is gone,
To vexe their soules at Resurrection.” (35-42)

21> If bodies are to be resurrected whole, then each part must be recovered. Resurrection thus complicates the active relic’s temporary purgatory. The couplet of lines 41-42 expresses a fear of partial-body resurrection and suggests that the dismembered body whose relics can be uncannily lively is also the body that “vex[es] soules at Resurrection.”

22> Many of Donne’s sermons echo the speaker’s concern with whole-body resurrection, especially if death has dispersed the body’s parts. But in sermons, Donne brings these concerns out of the imaginary, existing only in language, into the real. In a sermon preached at Lincoln’s Inn, Easter Term (1620), he dramatizes the postmortem reunion of body parts and of body and soul.[18]

“Shall I imagine a difficulty in my body, because I have lost an Arme in the East, and a leg in the West? because I have left some bloud in the North, and some bones in the South? Doe but remember, with what ease you have sate in the chaire, casting an account, and made a shilling on one hand, a pound on the other, or five shillings below, ten above, because all these lay easily within your reach. Consider how much lesse, all this earth is to him, that sits in heaven, and spans all this world, and reunites in an instant armes, and legs, bloud, and bones, in what corners so ever they be scattered….I, I the same body, and the same soul, shall be recompact again, and be identically, numerically, individually the same man. The same integrity of body, and soul, and the same integrity in the Organs of my body, and in the faculties of my soul too; I shall be all there, my body, and my soul, and all my body, and all my soul.”[19]

23> As sure and comforting as this may sound, the promise of whole-body resurrection, that the body will be “recompact again,” raises questions about the ontological state of the resurrected body. What Donne’s sermon must leave unanswered is what constitutes the “identically, numerically, individually” “same man.” Although such questions recur in his poetry and sermons, Donne promises his listeners in this sermon and others that God will make each person materially himself.[20] Such assurances anticipate ontological conditions to which Donne can only give shape through language.

24> Donne’s numerous references to dispersal and recovery testify to the human concern with both the “individual” as a unique instance of body/soul union and the mysteries of death. In a sermon preached on 19 November 1627 at the Earl of Bridgewater’s house in London on the occasion of his daughter’s marriage, Donne imagines numerous manifestations of dismemberment that could frustrate one’s resurrection:

“Where be all the splinters of that Bone, which a shot hath shivered and scattered in the Ayre? Where be all the Atoms of that flesh, which a Corrasive hath eat away, or a Consumption hath breath’d, and exhal’d away from our arms, and other Limbs? In what wrinkle, in what furrow, in what bowel of the earth, ly all the graines of the ashes of a body burnt a thousand years since? In what corner, in what ventricle of the sea, lies all the jelly of a Body drowned in the generall flood? What cohærence, what sympathy, what dependence maintaines any relation, any correspondence, between that arm that was lost in Europe, and that legge that was lost in Afrique or Asia, scores of yeers between? One humour of our dead body produces worms, and those worms suck and exhaust all other humour, and then all dies, and all dries, and molders into dust, and that dust is blowen into the River, and that puddled water tumbled into the sea, and that ebs and flows in infinite revolutions.”[21]

25> Whether a body is “shivered and scattered,” “eat away,” “burnt,” “drowned,” “blown into the river, [then] tumbled into the sea,” the end result is the same: the seemingly infinite dispersal of body parts.

26> To a human, preacher or parishioner, the task of retrieving those scattered parts would certainly seem daunting, if not impossible. And, if by some remote chance, a complete body could be recreated, how could the re-creator be sure that each part belonged to that body? Humans cannot achieve the promise of personal restoration, but pied-piper-like, God “whispers, hisses, and beckons” the scattered body to reassemble:

“[…] and still, still God knows in what Cabinet every seed-Pearle lies, in what part of the world every graine of every mans dust lies; and…he whispers, he hisses, he beckons for the bodies of his Saints, and in the twinckling of an eye, that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sate down at the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection.”[22]

27> More precisely, God “whispers, he hisses, [and] he beckons for the bodies of his Saints.” Yet, Donne concludes with just one individual body: “that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sate down at the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection.”[23] Beckoning bodies produces one body; however, the threat of becoming lost in the anonymous generalities of martyred bodies lingers. In the same sermon, Donne offers an answer to the question of the “identical” resurrected body by insisting that “God raises me a body, such as it should have been, if these infirmities had not interven’d and deformed it.”[24] “Such as it should have been,” not as it necessarily was. This proclamation is only momentarily comforting, however, because it does not suggest on whose terms the “should have” rests. Is the individual in control of his or her own ideal iconic production? Because “should have” is a verb tense of the imagination and a mode of the conditional verging on the imperative, the resurrected body is the rhetorically imaginative work of the individual. The agency of making (or re-making) the body becomes a shared project between God, who “raises [the] body” after death, and the individual who rhetorically creates the body “such as it should have been.” Donne’s self-blazons appropriate the creative function of resurrection in order to evoke preservation of the self in a culture that has the potential to debase the self.

28> Such concerns with self-preservation surface not only in Donne’s sermons but also in his lyric poetry. Lyric allows Donne to explore the space of the blazoned woman, occasionally to share that space with her and more often to experiment with the blazon as a vehicle of relic production. For example, Donne’s self-blazons work to proliferate his own iconic production both pre- and post-mortem. This is also true of his blazons of others. Like the speaker in “Loves Exchange,” who invites Love to “kill and dissect” him in an attempt to create relics of his vivisected body, the bride’s “embowel[ling]” in “Epithalamion made at Lincolnes Inne” paradoxically preserves her. The poem’s final stanza represents a moment of disembowelling that seems more fitting for an execution than for a wedding night and describes the bride as a lamb going to slaughter on what the previous stanza had called “love’s alter”:

“Even like a faithfull man content,
That this life for a better should be spent;
      So, shee a mothers rich stile doth preferre,
And at the Bridegroomes wish’d approach doth lye,
Like an appointed lambe, when tenderly
      The priest comes on his knees t’embowell her;
               Now sleep or watch with more joy; and O light
Of heaven, to morrow rise thou hot, and early;
This Sun will love so dearely
               Her rest, that long, long we shall want her sight;
Wonders are wrought, for shee which had no maime,
To night puts on perfection, and a womans name.”
(85-96; italics in the original)

29> The violent image of marital sex evokes the blood that results from the breaking of the virgin’s hymen; however, the result is couched in terms of neither pleasure nor conception but the apparent loss of her bodily integrity. The bride is figured as an obedient servant who knows her role; she is likened to “an appointed lambe,” who is greeted “tenderly” by the priest who also performs his appointed function. The oxymoronic language of tender disembowellment is further complicated by the bride’s intact body on the following morning; the new bride awakens with “no maime,” so that her body has been cleansed and made the same as was her virginal body. [25] But “no maime” may be a pun on the French “non même,” or “not the same,” which suggests that she was not the same in the morning. The line invites both contradictory readings, that she was and was not the same. As in the Protestant figuration of married chastity, the line suggests that the bride remains chaste—the same—even after her wedding night, although she is not the same if she is no longer a virgin. But the oxymoron that maiming is perfection is also a narrative borrowed from martyrology. The priest’s “embowelling” of the lamb/bride suggests an embalming, which would result in an iconic moment of cleansing: embalming involves a cleansing of the body at the moment of death, or in this case at the moment of the loss of virginity. [26] Though the bride has been gutted, an iconography has been created of the moment of loss. If the bride has been transformed into a mimesis of martyrdom, then the imagery of the wedding night, along with its ritualism and voyeurism, martyrizes sexuality.

30> The moment at which the priest approaches the bride “t’embowell her” marks a moment of bodily crisis—what appears to deny the bride corporeal integrity ushers in an iconic moment which leaves the bride with “no maime.” This is analogous to what happens to the blazoned body. Blazons destroy the whole body, yet they create and house active relics that can transform their viewer. As Stephen Greenblatt has observed, “the act of tearing down is the act of fashioning.”[27] Inherent in poetic blazon is just such a paradox: it is only through the violent act of itemizing the female body that the blazon and active relics can be created. Donne dramatizes this paradox repeatedly in his verse. In his discussion of the “erotics of salvation” of Donne’s Holy Sonnet, “Batter my heart,” Richard Rambuss observes that the intact subject rides the fence between the desire to maintain bodily integrity and a “matching desire for the self’s utter abasement, even dissolution.”[28] If the male speaker of “Batter my heart” asserts his own subjectivity and will over the episode of sacred ravishment, the bride of the “Epithalamion made at Lincolnes Inne” is denied access to her voice that could utter such imperatives as “o’erthrow mee, ’and bend / Your force, to breake, blowe, burn, and make me new” (“Batter my heart,” 3-4). Although the epithalamion does not actively dramatize the bride’s voice, it appropriates her desires and seeks to function as an amenuensis for her silence. At the poem’s blazonic moment, the bride can neither request nor refuse her “disembowelling,” and her silence shrouds her agency. She accedes to the sacrifice because she “preferres” a “mothers rich stile,” to which she can have access only if she undergoes the wedding night’s ritual (87). It is “the Bridegroomes wish’d approach” that initiates the scene of consummation/martyrdom; however, the line’s syntax obscures the active agent who “wishes” for the approach (88). The bridegroom may wish for the ritual; however, the bride herself may also wish for the bridegroom’s approach. Donne’s penchant for “deliberate misinterpretation” as Annabel Patterson puts it, obscures the desiring agent. [29]

31> The language of this wedding song’s last stanza is punctuated with images of sight: after the priest comes “t’embowell” her, the speaker instructs an unnamed audience, which is perhaps the bride, perhaps the watchful community, to “sleep or watch with more joy” (91). After the bride falls asleep, the sun will covet her sleep so long that “we”—presumably speaker, community, and reader—“shall want her sight” (94). Just as the poem embraces the possibility that the bride wishes for the bridegroom’s approach, the agent who “wants her sight” is clouded. “We” want the sight of her, but “we” also want her active sight; “we” want her to look at “us.” This paradox is echoed in The Second Anniversary: Of the Progres of the Soule. As the speaker considers Elizabeth Drury’s death, he suggests a causal relationship between sight and understanding:

“Shee, of whose soule, if we may say, t’was Gold,
Her body was th’Electrum, and did hold
Many degrees of that; we understood
Her by her sight, her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheekes, and so distinckly wrought,
That one might almost say, her bodie thought,
Shee, shee, thus richly, ’and largely hous’d, is gone:
And chides us slow-pac’d snailes, who crawle upon
Our prisons prison, earth, nor thinkes us well
Longer, then whil’st we beare our brittle shell.”
               (241-50, emphasis added)

32> Here, “we” “understood her” either by looking at her (by the sight of her) or perhaps by her looking at “us” (by her sight). Her metamorphosis in death sanctifies her; the speaker ultimately likens her to a saint to whom true devotion is due (511-18), and he acknowledges the transformative capabilities of her dead body. That she and the “Epithalamion” bride-as-relic are active forces is of principal import for Donne’s construction of poetic relics. Rather than create icons that are only acted upon, Donne constructs relics that actively interact with bridegroom and reader. Moreover, by fashioning animated female relics, Donne opens a space for his own self-creation as relic. Both bride and poet seeking favor (from a patron or from God) are simultaneously active and receptive. They are culturally similar, as both are subject to self-effacement; the relic, however, functions as a vehicle for self-preservation in just such hostile cultural environs.

33> A precondition for a relic’s lively force is an audience. The poet’s afterlife depends on his readers, and the speaker of the “Epithalamion” extends the voyeurism of the wedding ceremony into the bedroom, which, albeit troubling, facilitates the bride’s being such a relic. Martyrdom’s effectiveness is dependent upon its capacity to elicit both horror and glory from an audience: the horror of torture leads to eternal glory. In the case of martyrdom, glory is a cultural production; it is disseminated through stories and relics that miracle- or redemption-seekers can experience first-hand. The bride’s relics in the “Epithalamion” are contained in the reliquary that is the poem, and the reliquary is flexible enough so that “we” can see her and she can see “us.” Crowded though the bedroom is, the bride is the visual center. A priest performs both the wedding and the “disembowellment”; the bride acts according to the “Bridegroomes wish’d approach,” but from that point on, the bridegroom is curiously absent from the scene. He returns only among the unnamed “we” who “want her sight” as the sun steals her from “them” in sleep. The bedroom seems as populated as was the wedding. As Richard Halpern puts it in his discussion of the complicated matrix of the intersection of public and private spaces in Donne’s lyric, “his erotic poems define a private space set off from the social world. Yet his metaphors often reintroduce the very world he claims to want to exclude.”[30] The poem invites the world into the domestic space that one might expect to be reserved only for bride and groom.

34> In the “Epithalamion” bedroom, Donne’s use of metaphor functions precisely the way that Halpern explains the Donnean conceit, as “a structure of absolute difference or separation generated paradoxically through the medium of resemblance.”[31] Moreover, Halpern’s argument provides a useful lens through which to view the poem’s use of such disparate metaphors for bride and groom, not to mention for the moment of consummation itself. The metaphor constructs the bride as a lamb willingly going to the slaughter, and although the poem avoids naming the groom as priest, the metaphor suggests such a linkage. It thus conflates and separates public and private spaces and their rituals. Because it is a priest who performs the slaughter, rather than a butcher, for example, the ritualistic moment of the lamb’s death/bride’s loss of virginity produces an iconic moment of martyrdom that destabilizes the prototypical blazonic triangle and invites the bride to participate in the audience’s desire to see her. In fact, she turns this voyeuristic desire on its head, co-opting it for herself, so that she shares their desire to see. Moreover, the reader is implicated in this event of martyrdom as the poem moves from the crowded privacy of the bedroom to a public arena where “we” wait to welcome the bride from her sleep. In this case, loss of bodily integrity, through both “tender disembowellment” and blazonic description, does not deplete the bride, leaving her unable to act. Instead, the martyred bride makes choices and expresses desire. In the poetic reliquary, she is preserved for all to see, yet she sees “all” in return. Her relics can be seen (and can see) through the openings of the poem. Moreover, because of the synechdochal, symbiotic relationship between relic and reliquary, the reliquary shares her dynamic powers. Like the reliquary of the martyred body, the aesthetic image is equivalent to the physical relic; reading, then, preserves both poet and reader.

35> But like the martyred saint, the bride must undergo “embowell[ment]”; violence necessarily precedes sanctity. In the poem’s first stanza, the speaker says to her, “Leave, leave, faire Bride, your solitary bed, / No more shall you returne to it alone, / It nourseth sadnesse, and your bodies print, / Like to a grave, the yielding downe doth dint” (2-5). Before the ritual spectacle of her wedding night, her bed is “solitary,” “like a grave,” and thus threatens to hide her from sight—or from seeing. Yet the rituals involved not only in the wedding night but also in their retelling and their re-reading are what continually create relic and reliquary. As the penultimate stanza suggests, “Till now thou wast but able / To be what now thou art; then that by thee / No more be said, I may bee, but, I am” (81-83, italics in the original). Ontologically transformed from a state of future possibility to present reality, the bride is figured as forever present, forever being seen and seeing through the spaces of the poetic reliquary.

36> Odd as the “Epithalamion’s” wedding night may seem to a modern reader, Allen Ramsey observes that George Puttenham’s sixteenth-century definition of epithalamion is infused with violence that dovetails with salvation. Puttenham’s version of the English wedding night dramatizes the groom as a thief who “rob[s] his spouse of her maidenhead and save[s] her life”; and, “the bride so lustely to satisfie her husbandes love and scape with so litle daunger of her person.”[32] Here, the groom is a thief, not a priest as in Donne’s “Epithalamion.” However, Puttenham’s curious suggestion that the husband’s theft of his wife’s virginity might “save her life” finds a modified echo in Donne’s epithalamion, in which the bride accedes to the wedding night ritual because it is a necessary hurdle to the “rich stile [she] doth preferre” (87). In Puttenham’s rhetorical treatise, the bride’s reward is far less rewarding than it is for Donne’s bride. Performing the perfunctory wedding night ritual causes each bride only a “litle daunger of her person,” but the “Epithalamion” bride is rewarded with agency: her martyrdom translates into her iconic production as a compendium of active relics that can be seen (and can see) through the openings of the poem.

37> Puttenham’s treatise and Donne’s poem converge on two counts: first, the wedding night’s potential for the bride’s danger and for her salvation, and second, that an audience attends the wedding’s rituals. Ramsey observes that the English epithalamic tradition was divided into three parts, and each involves an audience for the new bride and groom. First, there were “‘songs [that] were very loude and shrill’ (41) to drown the noise made by the newlyweds”; second, “when the musicians arrived at the chamber door, because ‘the ballade was to refresh the faint and weried bodies and spirits,’ since ‘the first embracementes never bred barnes…but onley made passage for children’ (42)”; and third, “when ‘it was faire broad day’ (42); the bride emerges ‘no more as a virgine, but as a wife’ (42).”[33] In part one, musicians must play loudly enough so that people cannot hear the newlyweds. The musicians themselves are the audience in part two. And, in part three, there must be an audience to assess the bride’s change from virgin to wife. For the “Epithalamion” bride, the lack of privacy “save[s] her life,” because she has an audience with whom to interact.

38> Donne’s lyric metaphors repeatedly pair the seemingly disparate categories of love and martyrdom in such a way as to create for them a shared psychic landscape. By doing so, he makes possible the salvation of those marginalized by their cultural environs. Poet and bride share the prospect of surviving corporeal threat by positioning themselves as active relics. The speaker of “The Funerall” names himself “Loves martyr,” (19) and, as suggested at the beginning of this essay, the speaker of “The Relique” looks forward to the moment at which someone will exhume his and his lover’s bodies from the grave. After the exhumation, the poetic archaeologist will

“[…] bring
Us, to the Bishop, and the King,
To make us Reliques; then
Thou shalt be’a Mary Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby;
All women shall adore us, and some men.” (14-19)

39> The poem associates the speaker’s lover with “a Mary Magdalen,” with a prototype, in other words. The speaker, too, will be “a something else thereby,” another prototype. [34] Because Mary Magdalen is most often paired with Christ, the poem’s subtle metaphoric non-namings invite the association of the “I” of the poem with Christ, the model of religious martyrdom. However, because Mary Magdalen is also often characterized as a prostitute, the speaker’s construction of himself as “a something else” also insinuates that he is a common John, so to speak. He invites the reader to associate him with the resurrected Christ, but also needs to be associated with the mortal Christ, because Christ’s body defies the grave. In order that bodies may be cherished as relics, there must be bodies to cherish. For love to translate into martyrdom in “The Relique,” the exhumed bodies must be officially sanctioned and viewed by lay people. Relics take shape when body parts are viewed by the living. Like the bride in the “Epithalamion made at Lincolnes Inne,” the speaker of “The Relique” wants people to look at him and his lover after they are dead. Unlike the bride, the speaker of “The Relique” explicitly verbalizes his desires, insisting that he wants the lovers’ physical remains to be sanctified as relics. Because the poem names “the Bishop, and the King” as the adjudicators of proper relics, Donne’s metaphor constructs the lovers as legally sanctioned relics for public view. In fact, the poem itself raises the question of the legality of relics. The exhumed bodies need such official sanctification only “if this fall in a time, or land, / Where mis-devotion doth command” (12-13). If the exhumation takes place in a time or a place that is plagued by “mis-devotion,” then the relics must be publicly legitimated. Typically, relics are the remains of a martyr or saint that are powerful enough to perform miracles on their devotees. Relic construction in “The Relique” is different, since the bodies were “harmelesse lovers,” not martyrs or saints, thereby expanding relic production to include lovers. Love and martyrdom converge to produce secular saints of marginally auspicious figures. Yet, in this case, those who wield political power must sanctify the lovers’ bodies. Elsewhere, the blazon allows Donne to confer such status himself.

40> What the relic tradition offers for Donne is the possibility not only of disenfranchised people becoming the direct distributors of divine grace but also of lyric poetry functioning as a substitution for lost relics. In the sermons and sacred poetry, Donne explores the material conditions of death, ultimately assuring his audiences that God will restore bodily wholeness posthumously. Even when he prefaces such comforts with violent images, anxieties over corporeal disintegration give way to faith in God’s ability to reconstruct individual, particular integrity. The Songs and Sonnets, too, consider the effects of violence, expressed through the blazon, on the body, often drawing on images of both martyrdom and voyeurism. In this way, when blazonic partition creates not static icons but active relics, rhetorical flourish replaces the material body. Faced with the imaginative challenge of the ravishing effects of death and decay, viewers may find comforting spaces in which to find ontological truths and articles of faith.


I wish to thank Katherine Eggert, Kimberly Johnson, Alison Shell, Deborah Uman, and Mark Walters, who have read drafts of this paper and provided invaluable insights and guidance.

[1] All references to Donne’s poetry are taken from The Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross (New York: New York UP, 1968). Among inventories of parish churches in pre-Reformation England, women’s hair was listed as a relic. See, for example, Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992), 164.

[2] Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia UP, 1995), 211-12.

[3]Nancy Vickers, “’The blazon of sweet beauty’s best,’” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985).

[4] Catherine Bates, Masculinity, Gender, and Identity in the English Renaissance Lyric (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), 90, 96.

[5] Bynum, 108.

[6] Ibid, 202.

[7] Ibid, 209. Here Bynum quotes Ellert Dahl, “Heavenly Images: The Statue of St. Foy of Conques and the Signification of the Medieval Cult-Image in the West,” Acta ad archaeologiam et Artium historiam pertinentia 8 (Rome 1979): 175-92, esp. 186.

[8] Bynum, 211-12, emphasis added.

[9] John Phillips, The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535, 1660 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1973), 24-25.

[10] Katherine Eggert, Showing Like a Queen. Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000), 155.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Arthur Marotti, Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2005), 27.

[13] The Oxford English Dictionary defines “spermatic” as: “containing, conveying, or producing sperm or seed; seminiferous”; and as “full of, abounding in, sperm; generative, productive.” For a discussion of the androgynous nature of the mistress, see Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire. English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995), 237-44.

[14] Oxford English Dictionary 1a, 1.

[15] For a discussion of the anatomy theaters, see Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned. Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995).

[16] Marotti, 25.

[17] Ibid, 26-27.

[18] Donne’s seventeenth-century sermons have earlier precedents. Bynum explains that twelfth-century theologians believed that “the resurrection body was the body of the saint” (Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body, 200).

[19] John Donne, The Sermons of John Donne, vol. III, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson (Berkeley: U of California P, 1957), 109-10.

[20] For a discussion of Donne’s views on resurrection, see Ramie Targoff, John Donne Body and Soul (Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2008).

[21] John Donne, The Sermons of John Donne, vol. VIII, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter (Berkeley: U of California P, 1956), 98.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Donne’s conflation of the intact yet wounded female body may be an imitation of Edmund Spenser’s description of Amoret’s body in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene. Britomart rushes into Busirane’s castle and saves Amoret from him, although not before the enchanter has bound her and cut open her heart so that he could use her blood to write his “straunge characters of his art.” Both Spenser and Donne employ the paradox of the “perfect hole” to describe female characters who have endured violent penetration and yet have been restored to their prior, wholly integral condition. Amoret’s wound “was closed vp, as it had not bene bor’d,” and the new bride of Donne’s poem, through a “wonder” awoke from the night with “no maim.” Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977), III.xii.31, 38.

[26] In William Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, both Prince Hal and Falstaff use the word “embowelled.” A. R. Humphreys, editor of the Arden edition, glosses the word “embowelled” as “disembowelled for embalming, though with an equivoque on the ‘assay’ or ceremony of disembowelling the deer” (William Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV, ed. A. R. Humphreys [London: Routledge, 1989], 160 fn 108). “Embowelled” both connotes the emptying out of the body in order to prepare for embalming the body, or filling the body up, after death, and the emptying out of the body to prepare it for dismemberment.

[27] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1980), 188.

[28] Richard Rambuss, Closet Devotions (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998), 54, 59-60.

[29] Annabel Patterson, ‘Quod oportet versus quod convenit: John Donne, Kingsman?’ in Critical Essays on John Donne, ed. Arthur F. Marotti (New York: G.K. Hall and Co., 1994), 159.

[30] Richard Halpern, “The Lyric in the Field of Information: Autopoiesis and History in Donne’s Songs and Sonnets,” in Critical Essays on John Donne, ed. Arthur F. Marotti (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1994), 63.

[31] Ibid, 64.

[32] Allen Ramsey, “Donne’s ‘Epithalamion made at Lincolnes Inne’: The Religious and Literary Context” in John Donne’s Religious Imagination. Essays in Honor of John T. Shawcross, ed. Raymond-Jean Frontain and Frances M. Malpezzi (Conway, Ariz.: UCA Press, 1995), 42, emphasis added to Puttenham by Ramsey.

[33] Ibid, 99-100.

[34] In John Donne and the Rhetorics of Renaissance Discourse, James S. Baumlin also suggests that the poet “claim[s] to become ‘a something else’—that is, a resurrected Christ to the lady’s Mary Magdalen” (Columbia, MO: U of Missouri P, 1991), 173.

Sara Morrison is Associate Professor of English at William Jewell College, Liberty, MO. She is co-editor of Staging the Blazon in Early Modern English Theater (Ashgate 2013); her current work continues her interest in the blazon and focuses also on constructions of time in early modern drama.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature and Culture,
Volume Ten (2017): Artefacts

No comments: