Tuesday, October 6, 2009

John Donne

John Donne led quite a life. A ne’er-do-well in his youth, he married his wife, Anne, over the objections of her family. These were not trivial objections: his in-laws had him thrown in jail until it was proven that the marriage was valid. His nuptials ruined his career prospects. After a few years spent living off the charity of friends, he gamely settled into a placid preacher’s existence and sired a dozen children in sixteen years. As one of my more memorable English professors put it, all the guy did was write poetry and … yeah.

Donne’s poetry combines technical precision with intellectual brilliance. He juxtaposes unfamiliar and disparate elements and yokes them together into rhetorically convincing units. Despite this, he is not among my favorite poets. There is something of the work that smacks of the intellectual exercise. He’s the smart kid waving his hand who not only has the right answer, but the cleverest answer, and he rarely wastes a chance to demonstrate his superior verbal skills. His later religious works don’t strike me as insincere, but I find them less moving than those of his contemporary George Herbert.

This poem is different. It initially follows the pattern of his other metaphysical works, but then, at the last instant, the mask slips and something like sincerity peeps through. The end could be read as trite, but after so much posturing, I think it’s a relief to reach this sweet, unadorned statement of devotion to his beloved. I might be misreading the poem entirely, of course.

The Relic

When my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain,
—For graves have learn'd that woman-head,
To be to more than one a bed—
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls at the last busy day
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

If this fall in a time, or land,
Where mass-devotion doth command,
Then he that digs us up will bring
Us to the bishop or the king,
To make us relics; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby;
All women shall adore us, and some men.
And, since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.

First we loved well and faithfully,
Yet knew not what we loved, nor why;
Difference of sex we never knew,
No more than guardian angels do;
Coming and going we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
Our hands ne'er touch'd the seals,
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free.
These miracles we did; but now alas!
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.

John Donne on Wikipedia

John Donne on Poets.org

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