This poem is an exploration of the substance or essence of love – confronting the apparent irrationality of devotion but elevating it finally to the status of ‘miracle’. The poem also draws in ideas of religious devotion, gives voice to the poets own religious anxieties, and registers a frustration with the state of ‘love’ in the poet’s contemporary society.
The metaphor that acts at surface level in the title and the poem likens the speaker’s lover to a saint, with associations of supernatural purity – perhaps incorruptibility. He presents her as worthy of being ‘a Mary Magdalen’, worthy of the adoration of the masses. The ‘bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ is the lovers’ ‘relic’ – the ring shape symbolising fidelity is suggested by the strong ‘b’ sounds that tie the line together at its ends.
The image of adoration is complicated by the very graphic presence of ‘corrupted’ flesh in the poem – as death in the ‘bone’ and open grave, and as sinful licentiousness in the incredibly out of place comment in parenthesis. There is a particularly gruesome, bawdy pleasure in the metaphor of a corpse as a ‘guest to entertain’. We must ask ourselves how the metaphor of saintly purity can function at all coupled with such profanity. The image could in fact strengthen our view of the couple’s love – their feeling goes right down to the bone, to the flesh, or the fact that the love lives on in the structure of the poem after the meagre remains of the lover’s have been laid to rest in stanza 1. More likely though, it weakens or complicates our view of the relationship by violating in the most extreme ways the conventions of Petrarchan love – drawing attention to the frailty and temporality of flesh.
The poem brings in a discourse on the Reformation and changing religious beliefs that further complicates its central image. Veneration of ‘relics’ is a Catholic idea, something mentioned in stanza 2 with some disapproval, happening in a land where ‘mis-devotion doth command’. In condemning the Catholic belief, the image that likened the lover to a Catholic saint is surely also condemned. The love that seemed to bind them till ‘that busy day’ now becomes a ‘mis-devotion’. In fact, reading stanza 1 we sense a doubtful tone in the speaker, ‘Who thought that this device might be some way’. When seem in the light of the decayed remains of the lovers, this feels like an empty hope. The comparison between religious doubt and uncertainty in a relationship acts in both directions – Donne is using the love poem to think through his religion just as much as he uses religious controversies as a way of thinking about love.
We are left therefore with serious doubts regarding the substance of this love. If it is not bound up in the physical bodies of stanza 1, nor does it seem to a matter of the mind, ‘Yet knew not what we loved, nor why’. This struggle seems to be at the heart of the poem – locating the essence or source of passion in the lack of any ‘relic’. It is a ‘miracle’ – suggesting perhaps that it defies rational explanation. This might strike us as being still bound up in the idea of relics and veneration, ‘since at such times, miracles are sought’. But Donne insists that we look at something deeper than the physical remains, something in fact in the poem itself. Rather than wondering what miracles the ‘relic’ can perform, he asks us to consider the miracles that formed and maintained the bond to begin with.
Expressing disbelief or wonderment at the strength of the couple’s love is a complete change from the confidence and permanence suggested in the image of the female lover as a saint. The ‘miracle’ seems to be that love can exist at all based on nothing concrete. Another miracle is that the couple relate in equality, ‘Difference of sex no more we knew’, certainly he addresses her in the poem with a fair amount of candour. This equality might be contrasted with the implied misogyny of earlier the earlier stanzas, suggesting women’s infidelity ‘to more than one a bed’ and their naivety, ‘all women shall adore us’. The power of the relationship therefore is in its transcending of the relationships typical for that society, an idea that unlocks the cryptic line about ‘seals’ – suggesting perhaps an upholding of chivalric propriety and honour against the odds of ‘late law’ – the social norm that does away with these codes.
Finally however, there lines remain cryptic because the couple’s love is beyond the bounds of expression or cognition, ‘All measure and all language, I should pass’. The change here from direct address to indirect reference to the lover signals a change in mood to one of sadness and loss. The past tense ‘she was’ brings all the images of death at the start of the poem back, but in a sense contradicts all that has gone before it. The doubt and scepticism about love that he expresses directly to her, seems resolved to a doctrinal certainty in the memory of her. We wonder if there is implicit reproach in his statements on ‘woman-head’ at the start of the poem, which are put into perspective and become a source of regret at the end once the object of his conflicted affections has been lost.