Tuesday, October 07, 2008
"A Bracelet of Bright Hair"
I've been working with Donne's post-mortem love poetry for several years, and I always like to teach "The Funerall," "The Relique" and "The Damp" together, since each one imagines what happens to the lover's corpse after he has died. The first two poems describe the lover's corpse wearing "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone" (Relique, 6) and "That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns mine arm" (Funerall, 3).
Today I decided it would be good to show students an image of a memorial hair bracelet along with some memento mori jewelry before turning to the text (who knows, maybe I'll inspire a student). I usually show a Victorian braided hair bracelet and locket with hair, since hair bracelets from the Renaissance are less likely to have survived. But I wanted to see if there were any earlier examples and so turned, naturally, to my dear friend the giant searchable database of images from the collections of the V&A, which houses one of the largest European jewelry collections in the world. This database of digital images, by the way, is completely open to the public. So I searched the collection for "human hair" between 1300 and 1700. And remarkably, I found these artifacts.
These are finished pieces of needle lace worked in human hair c. 1625-1665. Very few survive, as they were quite fragile. The V&A has a few, two of which have been photographed for the online database. They had a button on one end, and a loop or hole on the other, and were most likely worn as bracelets and made by women (the V&A cites "The Relique" as evidence that they were very likely love tokens).
The delicacy and ingenuity of the work is astounding. Both display birds and crosses, but the first piece is freer in style, depicting a dog, an owl, a stag and several species of flowers and fruits (click on the images to enlarge them). The animals have eyes, feathers, rendered muscles. The flowers and fruit have seeds, petals, shadows. The second has an oak and acorn motif. They may have been finished with horsehair, and some kind of resinous gum.
Both of Donne's poems imagine that the bracelet contains a portion of his beloved's soul, corresponding with the early modern belief in corporeal resurrection. In "The Relique," the bracelet functions as a kind of homing device, calling his beloved's corpse back to his grave on Resurrection Day. The idea is that since the body houses the soul, everyone's lost body parts would summon one another across the earth at Resurrection- teeth, skin and bones seeking one another out for reassembly like the dry bones in the valley of Ezekiel 37. This would be particularly arduous for Catholic saints, whose several body parts had been dispersed across the world as relics.
I had always imagined the "subtle wreath of hair" as a simple braid, never as something so gossamer, intricate, and figural. Yet it's easy to see why such a beautiful product of one person's handiwork might be thought to contain a portion of her soul.