‘The Funeral’ by John Donne is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Each of these octaves conforms to a consistent rhyming pattern of ABABCDCD. In regards to the meter, the first five lines of each stanza remain the same, following a pattern of 10, 4,10, 10, and 6. The remaining three vary though, sometimes sticking to around 10 syllables, other times stretching out to fourteen.
The most important image of this text is the manacle of hair the speaker wears around his wrist. It goes through an important transformation in stanzas. First, it appears as some sort of bracelet-like reliquary, a remembrance of a pure, much-loved woman. As the poem progresses through the speaker’s tone shifts and the reader’s perception of the hair changes.
In the third stanza, the “wreath” is spoken of as a manacle. It is chaining him to the woman who gave it to him. His soul is tied up in the hairs and he knows the only thing he can do is take it to the grave with him.
Summary of The Funeral
The poem begins with the speaker asking that whoever eventually comes to buy him after his death leaves his hair bracelet alone. He knows that everyone is going to be curious about it, but no one should touch or even question it. The speaker has important plans regarding the item which are made clear later on.
He describes how important the token is to him. His entire soul is wrapped up in its strands and he believes it is going to sustain him after his death, as his brain did in life.
In the last lines, it becomes clear that the hair came from a woman who sought to imprison the speaker. She never loved him, but knew the power she had (and has) over him. The wreath of hair is more like a manacle, chaining him to her forever. He intends to take the hair into his grave in order to condemn some part of this woman to his own painful fate.
Analysis of The Funeral
Whoever comes to shroud me, do not harm,
Nor question much,
That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm;
The mystery, the sign, you must not touch;
For ’tis my outward soul,
Viceroy to that, which then to heaven being gone,
Will leave this to control
And keep these limbs, her provinces, from dissolution.
In the first stanza of ‘The Funeral’ the speaker begins by asking that “Whoever” comes to bury him does not touch the “wreath of hair” around his arm. He wishes to be conveyed straight to his grave without so much as a question about the hair. The speaker knows that the hair is going to make a lot of people curious. This worries him as he thinks someone is going to upset the plans he put into motion. What exactly those plans are becomes clear in the third stanza.
The speaker describes the hair in line five as his “outward soul.” It is the embodiment of all that he is. Therefore, it clearly belongs with him wherever he goes. A reader will likely be wondering at this point why his soul takes the form of hair? This is the same question the speaker anticipates.
In the eighth line of the stanza, it is revealed that the hair belongs to a woman. His “limbs” are her “provinces.” She is in control of every part of his being, like a “Viceroy.” He believes that the hair is going to provide him with some manner of protection after he dies. It will keep his limbs from “dissolution.”
For if the sinewy thread my brain lets fall
Through every part
Can tie those parts, and make me one of all,
Those hairs which upward grew, and strength and art
Have from a better brain,
Can better do ‘t; except she meant that I
By this should know my pain,
As prisoners then are manacled, when they’re condemn’d to die.
The speaker continues on in the second stanza to further explain why he can’t be parted from the hair. He sees it as a way to retain his form after his death. He compares the hair to his own nervous system, or as he says, “brain.”
While living he sees his brain as the force that holds his body together. It extends to “those parts” and “every part” while protecting him. He believes that after death the hair around his arm will take on the same role. In fact, he thinks it’s going to do a better job than his own brain could ever do. This is due to the fact that it came from “a better brain,” that belonging to his past love.
Up until this point, ‘The Funeral’ reads like a dedication to a lover. It is unclear who this person is but the wreath of hair alludes to the fact that she might be dead. The speaker is clearly in love with this person and is ready to dedicate himself to her in life as well as death. That is not 100% true though.
A turn in the speaker’s tone occurs after the colon in the sixth line of this stanza. Here he begins to explain why he ended up with the hair in the first place. It was even to him by this woman he loved, but not for a pure reason. She knew that by giving him the hair she would be trapping him forever. She sought to imprison him and condemn him to death. There is no escape from this woman’s grasp. Now, the question is raised, why does he want to keep the hair after death?
Whate’er she meant by it, bury it with me,
For since I am
Love’s martyr, it might breed idolatry,
If into other hands these relics came.
As ’twas humility
To afford to it all that a soul can do,
So ’tis some bravery,
That since you would have none of me, I bury some of you.
The speaker reveals at the beginning of the third stanza that he knew it would be destructive for him to leave the hair on earth with others. He is ready to martyr himself to love in order to keep “idolatry” from breeding. The speaker is planning on burying the hair with him so that he might condemn her to a similar death that he is facing. This is the only way for him to take back some of the power she took from him.
It is also revealed in the last line of ‘The Funeral’ that the relationship was one-sided. He loved her and she took advantage of that. Her token of hair was never meant as a promise of her love, she simply sought to control him and bind him to her.