The Relic by John Donne: Summary and Critical Analysis

The Relic is a poem in which Donne makes fun of the superstitions attached to the 'purely' platonic ideas of love; he also manages to satirize the society's blind prohibition against the attachment between the sexes. The persona addresses his beloved, with whom he has not yet been allowed to be intimate. They have only kissed out of the courtesy at meeting and parting, but not yet otherwise.

John Donne (1572-1631)

He has taken a strand of hair from the lady out of love; and he has bound it around his wrist. Now he imagines that after some centuries, when superstitious people dig up the grave in order to bury another dead body, they will find this strand of hair around his wrist (still not decayed!) and begin to make myths about it. The digger will interpret that the man (the speaker, when dead and dug up) had bound the strand of hair of his beloved so as to make it magically possible for him to meet his beloved (whose hair is magical). He will take that the bone and hair to the king and the bishop and request them to declare the two as saints of love.

 It is funny that the two have done nothing of the sort in reality. The speaker implicitly requests the lady not to worry because at least that kind of canonization might happen in the future. Those foolish people will regard the hair and bones as things for doing miracle by the lovers; to the man, the miracle is a different one. He does regard that his beloved is a real miracle, however. He is writing the present poem to tell the truth to those who will read and know the reality of those future times when people will make nonsense myths out of such incidents. In a sense, the poem is a satire on the superstitious ideas of love and magic, rather than believing in the actual contact and attachment between man and woman. The 'relic' of the title refers to the hair and bone that people will declare relic out of superstitious belief. A relic means 'a thing belonging to a person who is believed to possess saintly or magical power preserved for its religious or magical value'. The poem is a pure product of fancy.

The persona here comes close to being critical of the lady who seems to have allowed nothing more than formal kisses and a strand of hair a keepsake. We know that, physical contact, in Donne's philosophy of love, is essential even for spiritual love and physical contacts are not absent even from this admirable lyric. There is, to the man, first the bracelet of the beloved's hair tied round the lover's wrist, and thus uniting him physically as well as spiritually to her. Secondly, there are kisses which he could exchange. Further, the poet expressly states that a love which is purely spiritual is a miracle of nature, and not an ordinary human being. The lyric is based on a tension between spiritual and physical love and the tension is not resolved. The poem is perhaps one of the most subtle and implicit in Donne's corpus.

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Sharma, K.N. "The Relic by John Donne: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013,