The poem, ‘The Ecstasy’, is a clear and coherent expression of Donne’s philosophy of love. Donne agrees with Plato that true love is spiritual. It is a union of souls. But unlike Plato, Donne does not ignore the claims of the body. It is the body that brings the lovers together. Love begins in sensuous apprehension and spiritual love follows upon the sensuous. So the claims of the body must not be ignored. The union of bodies is as essential as the union of souls. Thus, Donne goes against the teachings of both Plato and the Christian Divines in his stresses on sensuous and physical basis even of spiritual love.
In this respect, he comes close to the Renaissance and Modern point of view. Indeed, for the first time, in this poem, the word ‘sex’ has been used in the modern sense. Donne’s emphasis on the physical basis of love is a measure of his realism. Indeed, despite all his metaphysical flights, the poet strikes an “earthly note”, when he ends the poem with the souls returning to their respective bodies and finding no change in them. ‘The Ecstasy’ is, in fact, one of the most “metaphysical” poems of Donne.
The passion and certainty of ‘The Ecstasy’ make it one of Donne’s greatest poems. At the same time, the realistic earthing of the poem’s metaphysic which takes place at the end makes it one of the most metaphysical, in terms of literary features, t of all his poems.
The essence of a metaphysical poem is the bringing together or juxtaposition of opposites, and in this poem the poet, John Donne has brought together and reconciled such opposites as the medieval and the modern, the spiritual and the physical, the metaphysical and the scientific, the religious and the secular, mystical beliefs and rational exposition, the abstract and the concrete, the remote and the familiar, the indoor, the human and the non-human. This is largely done through imagery and conceit in ‘The Ecstasy’, in which widely opposite concepts are brought together and the shift from the one to the other, is both swift and natural.
The Ecstasy Analysis
Where, like a pillow on a bed
A pregnant bank swell’d up to rest
The violet’s reclining head,
Sat we two, one another’s best.
Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string;
Two lovers, each the best man and woman in the eyes of the other, sat near the bank of a river, which was raised high, like a pillow on a bed, as if to provide a place for rest to the reclining heads of violets. Their (lovers) hands were firmly clasped from which emitted a fragrant balm. Their eyes met and reflected the image of each other. Thus they were one by holding their hands, but their images reflected in their eyes were all the propagation they did.
So to’intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.
As ‘twixt two equal armies fate
Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls (which to advance their state
Were gone out) hung ‘twixt her and me.
As between two equally matched armies, Fate might hold victory in the balance, so their souls which had escaped from their bodies to rise a state of bliss and quietude, hung between her and him. And while their souls held converse out of their bodies, they lay still and motionless like lifeless statues, all day they neither moved nor spoke.
And whilst our souls negotiate there,
We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day, the same our postures were,
And we said nothing, all the day.
If any, so by love refin’d
That he soul’s language understood,
And by good love were grown all mind,
Within convenient distance stood,
If any, so purified by the sincere and exalted love that he understood the language of souls, stood nearby (though he knew not which soul spoke because both meant and spoke the same thing), he might have had a re-blending or re-mixture of the different elements that make up his soul and depart far purer than he came. It was ecstasy to which their souls ascended; and it made clear to them the mystery of love. As a result of this, they realized that love is no sex experience – they saw what they did not see before, i.e., what love reality is that it is a thing of the soul, not of the body.
He (though he knew not which soul spake,
Because both meant, both spake the same)
Might thence a new concoction take
And part far purer than he came.
This ecstasy doth unperplex,
We said, and tell us what we love;
We see by this it was not sex,
We see we saw not what did move;
But as all several souls contain
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love these mix’d souls doth mix again
And makes both one, each this and that.
A single violet transplant,
The strength, the colour, and the size,
(All which before was poor and scant)
Redoubles still, and multiplies.
When love with one another so
Interinanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controls.
We then, who are this new soul, know
Of what we are compos’d and made,
For th’ atomies of which we grow
Are souls, whom no change can invade.
But oh alas, so long, so far,
Our bodies why do we forbear?
They’are ours, though they’are not we; we are
The intelligences, they the spheres.
We owe them thanks, because they thus
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their senses’ force to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay.
On man heaven’s influence works not so,
But that it first imprints the air;
So soul into the soul may flow,
Though it to body first repair.
As our blood labors to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot which makes us man,
So must pure lovers’ souls descend
T’ affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.
To’our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love reveal’d may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
And if some lover, such as we,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
Small change, when we’are to bodies gone.
Souls contain various things of which we are not fully aware; love mingles two souls and makes them one – each of them becomes a part and parcel of the other. A violet, if it is transplanted, develops in strength, color, and size. Similarly, when love joins two souls they mingle with each other and give birth to a new and finer soul which removes the pangs of loneliness or, in other words, “supplies whatever is lacking in either single soul.”
This new, re-animated soul, made up of their two separate souls, made them know that we are made and compounded of substances which grow and improve, which make us what we are not affected by the change. But alas, they had so long and so far ignored their bodies. Their bodies are ours, though we are distinct from the bodies. We are a spiritual being, and the bodies are the spheres within which we move. We are indebted to our bodies, for they first brought us together and yielded the sense to us. The bodies are not impure matter, but an alloy. They are like the metal which, when mixed with gold, makes it work all the better.
When the influence of the heavenly bodies works on man, it first permeates the air, so a soul can penetrate another soul, but it is only through the medium of the body that one soul can contact another. As from our blood issue forth spirits which act as the instruments of the soul, and which bind together elements that go to the making of man, so the body and sense-organs and all that comes to us through the sense are in the service of the lovers’ souls, otherwise, the soul (compared to the great prince in prison) cannot reveal itself.
Therefore, the lovers turn to their bodies, so that they may understand the mystery of love. Love ripens in the soul, but it is through the medium of the body that love is to be experienced. If some lover, such as they are, has heard this discourse, let him still observe them, and he will notice no change when they go back to their bodies.
The poem, ‘The Ecstasy’, is a remarkably subtle work, and perhaps the most famous of Donne’s love-poem. Its title is apt and suggestive. The word Ecstasy is derived from the Greek word Ekstasis which means to stand out (EK=out and Sta=to stand). In ‘The Ecstasy’, the souls of the poet and his beloved stand out their respective bodies and hold converse. If we subscribe to the views of the medieval and mystical era, Ecstasy is a trance-like state in which the soul leaves the body, comes out, and holds communion with the Divine, the Supreme, or the Over-Mind of the Universe. As well as this, in ‘The Ecstasy’ the souls of the lover and the beloved come out of the body, but they hold converse not with God, but with each other, the purpose being to bring out the essentially sensuous and physical basis of spiritual love. Thus in his usual characteristic manner, Donne has used religious and philosophical beliefs to illustrate the physical and the material.