Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Gold Rose John Donne

17th-Century Literature | John Donne | Quotes | Biography | Works | Essays | Resources | Bookstore | Discussion Forum



Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Ken Thompson
Graduate Student APSU, Clarksville, TN

Galvanized, Erotic Love Refined:
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:

   Our hands were firmly cemented
   With a fast balm, which thence did spring
   Our eyebeams 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 intertwined oneness.
         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" (48).
         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 the air,
So soul into the soul may flow,
Though it to body first repair. (57-60)

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 souls.

1 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.

Backto Essays and Articles on Donne

Site copyright ©1996-2012 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on September 19, 2001. Last updated April 18, 2012.


The Stuarts

King James I of England
Anne of Denmark
Henry, Prince of Wales
King Charles I
Queen Henrietta Maria
The Gunpowder Plot, 1605

17th-century Literature:

King James VI & I
Sir Francis Bacon
Lancelot Andrewes
Sir Thomas Overbury
William Alabaster
John Donne
Joseph Hall
Ben Jonson
Thomas Dekker
John Marston
Francis Beaumont
John Fletcher
Thomas Middleton
John Webster
William Rowley
Philip Massinger
Thomas Heywood
Edward Herbert
Lady Mary Wroth
George Herbert
Thomas Carew
Francis Quarles
Robert Herrick
Thomas Hobbes
John Ford
James Shirley
Mildmay Fane
Sir John Suckling
Richard Crashaw
Richard Lovelace
Abraham Cowley
John Milton
Sir Thomas Browne
Edmund Waller
Andrew Marvell
Henry Vaughan
Margaret Cavendish
Dorothy Osborne
Katherine Philips
Sir Isaac Newton
Essays and Articles
Additional Sources

Metaphysical Poets

Visit the site

Cavalier Poets

Visit the site

English Renaissance Drama

Visit the site

English Religious Writers

Visit the site

Historical Personages

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
Arabella Stuart, Lady Lennox
William Alabaster
Bishop Hall
Bishop Thomas Morton
Archbishop William Laud
John Selden
Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford
Henry Lawes

Search | Luminarium | Encyclopedia | What's New | Letter from the Editor | Bookstore | Poster Store | Discussion Forums