Dying to Love: Romance and Faith in John Donne’s “The Funeral”

The speaker in John Donne’s “The Funeral” appears to have reasoned through the problem of death. He writes that “Whoever comes to shroud” him after he passes should not disturb “That subtle wreath of hair” which adorns his arm; he attests that the mystical bracelet, a prize given to him by a beloved mistress, will “keep [his] limbs… from dissolution” (lines 1, 3, 8). He bolsters the Romantic powers of his lover’s keepsake with Christian imagery, consecrating the wreath with religious might and importance. Yet, the idealized comparison inspires obvious skepticism in any candid reading of the poem. After all, does the speaker really think a tangle of hair can function as an “outward soul” and keep him alive after death (5)? In the second stanza, this doubt even creeps into the narrator’s logic as he tries to explain how the band works. Yet, the uncertain meaning and power of the bracelet only moves him to more religious bravado. The speaker’s use of classic, religious diction to describe his faith in the wreath, intimates his extreme faith in Love, while also contradicting its supposed power. In the first stanza, the speaker relies on the subtle use of religious terms with Christian significance to ascribe power to his bracelet. The band is described as “The mystery, the sign you must not touch” (4). The use of a definite article highlights the fact that “mystery” is being attributed a specific importance beyond its general meaning. “The mystery” does not imply that the wreath is simply an enigma; it also suggests that it embodies a religious truth that is beyond humanity’s capacity to understand, and is even associated with the sacred rites and sacraments of the Christian church. A greater allusion to Christian theology occurs when the speaker says that the wreath “crowns [his] arm” (3). Though, perhaps the choice in diction is a pun in the context of the greater scene- an obsolete definition of to crown means to hold a coroner’s inquest on- more likely refers to Jesus’ crown of thorns, a symbol of his martyrdom and faith. To the speaker, his wreath validates his position as “Love’s martyr” (19). But in this case, the odd misplacement of the object confers a misplaced importance: the wreath of hair is not a crown of thorns; the speaker’s martyrdom is certainly not equal to that of Jesus. In fact, though the narrator’s spiritual rhetoric imbues the bracelet with power, it also tarnishes his faith in love with flaws and contradictions. The speaker writes that the wreath is his “outward soul, / Viceroy to that, which then to heaven being gone, / Will leave this to control, / And keep these limbs, her provinces, from dissolution” (5-8). The concept of an “outward soul” is paradoxical in itself. “Outward” harnesses not only the obvious meaning of lying outside the speaker’s body but also that it is inherently physical or external- not spiritual or profound. This contradicts the very idea of a soul, that which is the spiritual, immaterial, everlasting essence of man. The incongruity indicates a flaw in the speaker’s idolatry: a physical, superficial soul cannot protect him from his own physical fate. The metaphor of the soul to a “viceroy” also presents a contrast to Christianity. A viceroy is literally a vice-king, but more generally, one who rules by the authority and in the name of a supreme figure. The obvious implication is that the bracelet will command the “provinces” of the speaker in the stead of the inward soul that will rise to heaven. But the peculiar choice of “viceroy” draws the immediate comparison to the Christian concept of God as a king. If the “outward soul” of the bracelet is merely viceroy, then the faith it represents is inherently lesser than that to the speaker’s true soul, the figurative king: God. Ironically the speaker’s religious terminology is a self-contained critique of his faith in the wreath. In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker attempts to account for the sovereignty of the wreath, but ends up questioning the meaning and power he so confidently bestowed upon it. He writes, “if the sinewy thread my brain lets fall / Through every part” is also the thing which “Can tie those parts and make me one of all” then hairs from his lover’s head, “from a better brain / Can better do it” (9-14). The anadiplosis of “parts” and “better” indicates the extent to which the speaker attempts to proceed rationally, creating syllogisms to justify the relationships between the several phrases. Yet, the logic in his thoughts is fanciful at best and just after the speaker utters his explication, he stutters: “except she meant that I / By this should know my pain, / As prisoners then are manacled, when they’re condemned to die” (14-16). The verse loses its fairly regular iambic meter just before “except,” requiring the observance of a virtual beat to uphold it. This formal stumble represents a greater faltering in the speaker’s speech; it is a gasp, a moment of realization. His reasoning, though beautifully passionate and Romantic, is hardly something on which to stake one’s life. The meaning of his wreath may have been completely misconstrued; it may be the thing that confers his tragic mortality- not his everlasting life. His fate, like the wreath, is ambiguous at best. Though the speaker’s subtle religious diction in the first stanza only hinted at the differences between his faith in the bracelet and actual Christianity, the final strophe exposes even greater evidence of their disparity. He writes, “bury [the wreath] with me, / For since I am Love’s martyr, it might breed idolatry, / If into others’ hands these relics came” (17-20). On one level, the speaker portrays himself as a martyr, someone valiantly dying for a greater purpose, for Love. Indeed, he even implies that he is a saint of Love by saying his possessions and body parts are relics. But in a skewed manner the narrator is also acting for the Christian faith he is lampooning; when he requests the wreath be buried along with him, he negates the possibility for his relics to “breed idolatry”- the immoderate attachment to a semblance of a deity, which is a sin in Christianity. He even criticizes himself for attaching such importance to the bracelet, saying “’twas humility”- meekness and low condition- “To afford to [the wreath] all that a soul can do” (21-22). But the narrator’s rhetoric of religious sacrifice belies the sexual implications of the speaker’s relationship with his mistress. The conversion of new worshippers is described as “breeding,” implying that worshippers’ faith is a sort of sexual offspring. A pun also degrades the nature of the contact between worshipper and idol, the verb form of “to come” suggesting that their relationship will be more bawdy than spiritual. Finally, there is the ambiguity between editions of the last line; “That since you would save none of me, I bury some of you” is sometimes printed with “have” in place of “save,” implying that it is the mistress’ decision to not copulate with the speaker- rather than her inability to act as a soul- which makes him question her power (24). Considering this new sexual aspect to the speaker’s faith, his martyrdom could be interpreted as decidedly selfish. Perhaps, he is not dying to save others from the peril of idolatry at all, but rather to preserve his loved one from gaining any new admirers. After all, “I bury some of you” cannot be uttered without a tinge of bitterness- especially when it is accompanied by a shift in the manner of address; no longer is the narrator’s speech attributed indirectly to “her” or “she,” now he is speaking to her directly- and forcefully- as “you.” The speaker’s use of religious terms and images creates an interesting dichotomy between his faith in Love and the traditional Christianity to which it is compared; however, the overall effect is not as grave as the subject matter or title might suggest. The paradoxes, puns, contradictions, and romanticized arguments presented within the verse are playful illustrations of what can happen when a person attempts to rationalize their most passionate emotions. And the religious references, though essential metaphors to understanding the poem, are not meant to confer any serious dogmatism, but rather to help express the depth of the speaker’s emotions. For as the narrator might agree, Love- no matter how misguided or bittersweet- is in many ways the reigning religion.Works Cited”The Funeral,” John Donne in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth edition, Vol. B, ed. David, Simpson. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. 2006, 1278-1279.

Leave a Comment