Graduate Student APSU, Clarksville, TN
Galvanized, Erotic Love
An Explication of John
Donne’s The Ecstasy
Some have called John Donne the greatest love poet in English. His
definition of ‘ecstasy’ is complex, if not ineffable. His ‘love’
if the poet has his way is the best love. At the pinnacle of
love, Donne believes a state of ‘ecstasy’ exists between the lovers that
embraces all dimensions of their being one with each other. The corporate
whole of this relationship overpowers the individual elements that make
it up even including sexual consummation. Donne’s exponential power
of love that has approached and been consumed by ‘ecstasy’ far exceeds
ordinary definitions of love, so much so, that often ‘spectators’ are positioned
in his poetry to be stupefied by the lovers’ intimate and personal eroticism.1
A modern day first reading of The
Ecstasy might remind prospective bride and groom before the marriage
altar that they are ‘already married’, already one soul, already a singular
union long before the votive pronouncement of their minister, priest, or
rabbi. If this two being one (common Donne idea) seems a shock to
the intended couple, then their future marriage most likely would be in
jeopardy. Simplistically, the wedding serves as an acknowledgement
of what has already taken place?the merging of two souls into one regardless
of the legality but hopeful of divine blessing. The combining power
behind this galvanization is love. Intimacy that authentic lovers
advance requires knowing each other thoroughly against an ever creeping
erotic background, an environment that begs for holy confirmation (soul
mate meetings) in concert with fleshy ebullience (erotic fulfillment).
Donne’s poem includes both in his definition of ecstasy.
There’s no shocking opening line as is custom in Renaissance metaphysical
poetry, but rather pastoral eloquence is captured by Donne’s violet simile
"like a pillow on a bed" his two lovers "sat" (1). The earthly
banks did not swell up to support a rose (red) but rather a purple (Bishop’s
robe color) violet, a reverent color choice and a choice of flower that
has prolific spreading in its growth. The violet is naturally a wild
variety and a welcomed sign of early spring.2 Its root system
lends itself to easy spreading and an abundance of additional growth just
as Donne’s lovers will experience growth in their love. Donne uses this
flower again in the poem at line 37. Donne’s lovers are sitting and
holding hands, staring at each other intimately intensely with sweating
palms, a sign of repressed physical attraction:
hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring
twisted, and did thread
Our eyes, upon
one double string,
So to intergraft
our hands, as yet
Was all the
means to make us one . . . . (5-10)
Each lover sees their reflection
in the other’s eyes, a reflection that symbolizes their oneness, their
whole intent: "Was all our propagation" (12). Mirrors and other glass
images play a significance in Renaissance poetry reflecting the unknown
and making it known, as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and other astronomers
were discovering the unknown and shaking up established beliefs.
Donne’s lovers’ eyes are the telescopes to discerning and confirming a
true level of magnified intimacy with piercing laser-like connectors (twin
beams that are interlaced). Their stares mimic their hands in an
At line 13 Donne introduces the concept of the lovers’ souls being suspended
as " ’twixt two equal armies" where "Fate" knows in advance the outcome.
Although modern interpretation understands an inward meeting of the lovers’
souls, Renaissance readers enjoy an outward meeting with the souls actually
having a negotiated conference while the souls’ corporeal bodies remain
inert in silence "like sepulchral statues" (15-20). Donne’s hypothetical
spectator "within convenient distance stood" can now learn the poet’s high
regard for the quiddity of this conference of the souls (24). The
spectator is unable to distinguish which soul spoke because in this negotiated
state the lovers’ souls are one and speak the same thing (one voice), thus
profoundly changing the spectator’s perspective on what true love is.
He will leave "purer than he came" (28).
At line 29 Donne defines the essence of the souls’ conference as "ecstasy".
Their meeting, their intertwined oneness, their thorough understanding
of each other is ecstasy, a kind of euphoric connection, a ‘connaitre’
ebullition. Yet, this ecstasy is "not sex" alone; its formula is
a "Mixture of things, they know not what", but its power emotionally multiplies
their entire relationship and makes it stronger (34-40). The resulting
reborn relationship is enhanced, and Donne’s use of the violet is appropriate
again, for violets are often improved when transplanted. What springs from
this ecstasy of two souls baptized by love is a unified singular "abler
soul" that is subject to the "Defects of loneliness", a longing for union
and unity which when satisfied allows unconquerable peace (43-44).
Nothing can change this state of ecstasy: ". . .whom no change can invade"
The shift in this poem demonstratively arrives at line 49 when Donne finds
his galvanization of the spiritual and the physical. The conference
of souls is over; the argument for incorporating the "bodies" within the
soul is at hand. He is careful to announce that the true nature of
the lovers is the cerebral intelligences and the bodies but the "spheres"
(52) [liberty with the s]. Readers could interpret that while the
souls’ conference was occurring, the previous lovers’ bodies, inert, silent,
are now reentering the picture of the poem. Donne’s use of the word
"forbear" at line 50 lends credence to this interpretation. Does
he mean "forbear" in the general sense applying to all lustful people who
are in love, or does he mean as a poet he left them alone long enough back
at line 20? The poem’s endearment is not hindered either way.
The ruling ‘abler’ soul now shows gratitude to the secular bodies, thanking
them for their sensuousness and for putting the abler soul’s fear at rest
(55-56). Donne draws a distinction between secular motivations and
"Heaven’s" when he suggests that heaven’s influence concerns itself with
spirituality, not the temporal longings of corporal appetites:
On man Heaven’s
influence works not so,
But that it first imprints
So soul into the soul may
Though it to body first
Just as in Medieval times, the
Renaissance also looks to heaven for ultimate terminus, but the Renaissance
embraces humanism more passionately, milking the temporal pleasures of
earth for every drop, not sacrificing the spoils of an earthly pilgrimage
for the one in heaven. The Renaissance folks know the body is the
temple, and that’s where God would first conduct a "repair" (60).
Even the visual arts of the Renaissance show full-blown awareness of the
beauty of the body as is evidenced by Michelangelo’s David.
The lovers yearn for the needs of the body to be met. Renaissance
poets believed individual spirits gained expression through the blood (the
flesh), and the flesh carries out the actions of the soul. Donne never
disappoints in this needful regard. He acknowledges man’s reaching
to the heavens for ultimate awakening and the forming of a soul, but he
also acknowledges the basic fleshy needs of lovers reaching toward one
another. At line 65 Donne has the "pure lovers’ souls" lower their
lofty heads to gaze and act upon the pleasures of the body. Failure
to address the needs of the flesh would result in a "great prince in prison
lies" where the prince represents the soul, and the prison equates to the
body (68). The effects of ‘courtly love’ are demonstrated in this
line which according to the ‘code of courtly love’ requires the male lover
to suffer to the point of death the refusal of his beloved’s charms.
This code was well understood from Medieval literature, and line 68 reminds
readers of Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale where Palamon and Arcite are imprisoned
in the king’s tower only able to catch a glimpse of the fair Emily.
The concluding lines
of Ecstasy reveals the "book" belonging to the soul and representing the
"body" must be read, must be acknowledged even though there is further
growth of the mysteries of love in heavenly pursuits (71-72). And,
furthermore, if some bystander who professes to also be a lover hears this
"dialogue of one" and understands this level of lovers’ intimacy where
souls meld, where lovers are one, where spirit acknowledges the flesh,
then ‘he’ will see very little "change" between the spiritual lover and
the fleshly lover, for they are the same in either state (76).
Donne’s last clause "when we’re to bodies gone" pleads for an additional
interpretation? that of reading the spirit leaving the dead body, the body
that is decaying and finally gone. In light of the poem’s title and
considering the whole of Donne’s love poetry, the concluding clause has
more continuity with the meaning overall if readers consider the bodies
are turning toward one another. They are "gone" to each other, not
literally gone as in decay. The point being those lovers who truly
love each other are already in such perfect union that physical union would
not enhance a bystander’s opinion, nor would it detract.
Considering the Renaissance world under attack from plagues and religious
polemical debates, it’s understandable that lovers at that time would turn
to each other in their private chamber for solace (their private world
a macrocosm), that they would hope the sin of burning lust could be appeased
by God if they truly loved each other, and that their fleshy consonance
would triumph over the dissonance of the soul. Haunting the thoughts of
readers at any period upon concluding Donne’s Ecstasy is did he give his
lovers a license to consummate their love? Are they satisfying their
mutual longings in the privacy of their bedchamber now that the spectators
are gone, and they have regained their privacy? The abler soul would say
yes, for the lovers are "one another’s best" (4). Modern readers
and prospective marriage partners would also conclude the poem’s lovers
are taking inventory of their physical charms, but their union was already
sealed through the soul mating which is more important. Donne’s version
of ecstasy includes sexual fulfillment but focuses on the union of two
There is a long literary tradition from which Donne borrows in his dealing with the manifestation of the
mystery of love. Among them are ‘In a grove most rich of shade’
(Astrophil and Stella, Song 8) by Sidney,
Lord Herbert’s Ode upon a Question
Moved, Wither’s When Philomela with her strains (Fair Virtue, Son. 3).
Also see the debate on the motives of love taken up by Plato’s Phaedrus.
2 Violets come in yellow and
crimson, too. Donne chose the reverent color (purple). Violets
grow close to
the ground, often sharing common root systems (careful and
thoughtful choice by Donne).
All Donne quotations from
Donne, John. "The Ecstasy." Seventeenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology.
Robert Cummings, Ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Text copyright ©2001
Ken Thompson. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium
through express written permission.
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