Write a close reading of John Donne’s “The Relic”. Think about what the poem is about (content), how it is written (form and structure), and why, to what effect (the relation between form and content). You may like to refer to Cleanth Brooks’ essay, “The Formalists,” for inspiration.
This essay will look at the form, structure and content of “The Relic” in an attempt to offer an explanation as to what the poem is about. It will examine the metaphysical poets, and discuss the techniques employed by them to express their views. “The Relic” consists of three 11-line stanzas which incorporate tetrameter (four metrical feet), pentameter (five metrical feet) and two tri-meter (three metrical feet) lines per stanza. It is written mainly in iambic pentameter and has a rhyming pattern of aabbcddceee. This gives the poem a songlike quality which is associated with this type of lyric poetry. Each stanza is made up of a single sentence which, with the help of the meter, forces the first four lines of each verse to be read rapidly. The caesura then slows down the reading, causing the reader to reflect more deeply on what has been said. In the first line of “The Relic”, Donne uses images allied with death. This makes it easy for the reader to mistake the theme of the poem as being about dying. By using the personal pronoun ‘my’ (l.1) placed alongside the noun ‘grave’ (l.1) it is suggested that it is Donne’s own grave which is being made reference to, thus reinforcing the impression of a mournful poem. However, when Donne goes on to describe the exhumation of his and his lover’s corpses, after they have rotted away, the poem changes from embodying death to celebrating love. The reader becomes aware that although he is dead, death is not the true significance here. The move from death to love is introduced with: ‘A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,’ (l.6). This line could be interpreted as a wedding ring joining the couple together; adding to the intensity of their love. However, this is explained in ‘The Funeral’ (p 309) as ‘a lock of hair tied about his arm’ (p 309). This explanation could detract from the power of the line. The line seems to have more potency without this knowledge, adding an extra dimension to the poem, so allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions about the relationship between the couple. The juxtaposition of a grave with a pair of lovers is a powerful, paradoxical metaphor that is shocking to the reader. This pairing would not automatically be seen as romantic but Donne succeeds in conveying this impression. By indicating that the gravedigger would ‘think that there a loving couple lies,’ (l.8) after noticing the ‘bracelet of bright hair about the bone,’ (l.6), Donne successfully communicates that ‘The Relic’ is a poem about eternal love; love has survived beyond death. This collocation of opposing elements is a technique often employed by the metaphysical poets to express their thoughts and feelings. The metaphysical poets were influenced by Neo-Platonism ; a system of philosophical and theological doctrines . However, this highly abstract and over theoretical approach to poetry can make it less accessible; alienating a vast selection of readers. Poetry should not only be about intellectual superiority which, it could be argued, is often associated with the metaphysical poets. This appeared to be the view of Samuel Johnson, who was the first to label this generation of authors ‘The Metaphysical Poets’: The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together: nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased. T.S. Eliot, whilst admitting the difficulty in defining metaphysical poetry, opposed Johnson’s view. When considering ‘Donne’s most successful and...
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