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). 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.
(85-96; italics in the original)
(241-50, emphasis added)
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