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A Short Analysis of John Donne’s ‘The Ecstasy’

Notes towards a commentary on Donne’s ‘The Extasie’

John Donne (1572-1631) didn’t write ordinary love poems. Arguably the first of the ‘metaphysical poets’, Donne writes about love in a refreshingly direct and honest way. And yet, as the label ‘metaphysical’ suggests, his poetry is also full of complex and convoluted images and analogies, and decidedly indirect ideas that circle around the thing he is discussing. This paradox of Donne’s poetry is neatly exemplified by ‘The Ecstasy’ (sometimes the poem’s title is given as ‘The Extasie’, preserving its original Early Modern spelling), so a few words of analysis may help to elucidate what is a challenging and complex love poem.

The Ecstasy

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;

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.

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,

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 O 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 labours 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.

Let’s begin with the literal meaning, and origin, of that word, ‘ecstasy’: from the Greek ekstasis, ex stasis, literally ‘outside standing’ – i.e. standing outside of oneself, or apart from oneself. A truly ‘ecstatic’ experience is always, to some extent, an out-of-body experience. Donne’s poem, then, is about the separation of the body and soul, which is immediately odd, since elsewhere his poetry explores the idea that the soul and the body are, in fact, one. What’s going on here, then?

‘The Ecstasy’ is not the shortest of poems, running to nineteen quatrains, so a brief summary of the poem may help. Donne begins by describing where he and his sweetheart are: in a pastoral setting, upon a riverbank in springtime (there are violets growing along the bank), he and his beloved sit, holding hands, gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes. The third stanza makes it clear that this is all they’ve done so far: held hands and looked in each other’s eyes (this was ‘all our propagation’, i.e. they’ve thought about having sex with each other and made eyes at each other, but haven’t physically done it yet). There’s also an allusion here to the idea that lovers can see their unborn children in each other’s eyes: as so often in Donne’s poetry, sex and procreation are explicitly discussed together.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, Donne tells us that, while their two bodies remain motionless there, like ‘statues’ as they sit holding hands on the bank, their two souls are in negotiations, like two great armies. In the sixth and seventh stanzas, Donne says that if anyone had been nearby to hear their souls speaking to each other, he would have experienced an exchange of souls so pure and refined that he would have left richer than he was before.

Donne then says that hearing their souls speak to each other has made plain the nature of their feelings for each other: they didn’t know before, but their souls have made it plain. But Donne doesn’t want their souls to do all the talking: he wants to be joined in physical union (‘But O alas, so long, so far / Our bodies why do we forbear?’). Their souls being joined is all well and good, but to propagate and have children, their bodies need to come together too. ‘The Ecstasy’ thus turns into a poem of seduction and even, on one level, a carpe diem or ‘seize the day’ poem:

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.

Such a conclusion chimes with another of Donne’s poems, ‘The Flea’, more than we might at first expect.

In the last analysis, what Donne is arguing in ‘The Ecstasy’ is that the only way two lovers’ souls can truly become unified – the only way that two can become one, to borrow from the Spice Girls – is through bodily union, or sex. This develops and even challenges the Renaissance idea of Neoplatonism, in that Donne returns to the body as the site of union between the two lovers: only through physical union can their souls be joined.

And indeed, right from the outset of ‘The Ecstasy’, even when Donne’s emphasis is on the non-joining of their bodies and on the negotiation between their souls, his language is heavily corporeal:

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;

The suggestion of what happens when men and women join their bodies together (‘pregnant’) is transposed to the bank on which the lovers sit, while the word ‘breast’ lurks behind the lines without actually be spoken, thanks to the pressure of the ‘swell’d’ bank, the mention of the ‘head’ of the violet, and the rhyme of rest/best. It’s as if Donne’s thoughts are already on the bodily and physical, even while he and his beloved sit there simply holding sweaty hands.

‘The Ecstasy’ deserves closer analysis because it divides critics, with some seeing it as a ‘nasty’ poem (C. S. Lewis’s word for it) and others viewing it more favourably as a rewriting of Neoplatonic ideas present in courtly love poems.

Continue to explore Donne’s wonderful poetry with our commentary on his ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, our summary of his poem ‘The Canonization’, and our analysis of his famous poem ‘The Sun Rising’. The best edition of Donne’s work is, in our opinion, the indispensable John Donne – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).

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A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on March 8, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Donne had a way of speaking about love that was indirectly direct.

  2. This was fascinating – and amusing!

  1. Pingback: 10 John Donne Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature

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