The Ecstasy by John Donne

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 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.

Summary

We, two lovers, each thinking of the other as the best person in the world, sat on the river-bank which was raised high like a pillow to enable the reclining heads of violet flowers to rest on it. Our hands were firmly grasped and from them a strong perfume emanated. Our eyes met and reflected the image of each other. It appeared as if our eyes were strung together on a double thread. Our hands were firmly clasped together and this was the means of bringing us close to each other. Our eyes reflected our images and this was the only fusion of our love.

Just as when two equally powerful enemies fight each other while fate holds the victory in a state of balance, undecided which way to turn the scale, in the same way, our souls, which had left our bodies to sublimate to a state of bliss, hung between the two of us uncertain of their future. While our souls, communicated with each other in this situation, we lay quiet and motionless like statues built over the monument of the dead. All thought the day our bodies continued to remain in the same position without movement or speech.

If any stranger, whose soul had been purified by a similar process had stood beside our souls, and had been capable of understanding the language of the souls his purified mind would have forgotten the existence of the body and enlightened and sharpened the faculties of his mind, such a soul may not have understood the conversation of our souls because both our souls meant and spoke the same thing, but that soul might have undergone a fresh process of purification and felt more refined than before.

Our souls have reached a state of ecstasy which revealed to us what we did not know earlier. We realised that love was not sex experience. We discovered the first time that love really is a matter of the soul and not of the body. Souls are made of various elements of which we have no knowledge. It is love which brings together two souls and makes them one, though, in reality, the two have senate existence.

When a violet plant is transplanted (removed from one place and replanted in a better soil) it shows a marked improvement in its colour, size and strength. After transplantation it almost doubles itself and also grows more rapidly. In a similar manner when love brings two souls together it imparts to them a great zeal and life. The stronger (or noble soul) supplements (or removes) the deficiencies of the lesser soul. Love also removes the feeling of loneliness felt by single souls.

As a result of the union of two souls, so to say, a new soul comes into being. This new soul knows of what elements the two souls are composed. It makes us realize that the substances of which we are made are not subject to any change.

Alas, we have so far and so long ignored our bodies. The bodies are ours, but we are distinct from the bodies. We are souls; we are of spiritual substance; we are like heavenly planets while our bodies are the spheres in which we move.

We are thankful to our bodies, because they brought us together in the first instance. Our bodies surrendered their sense in order to enable our love to be spiritual. Our bodies are not impure matter, but they are like an alloy (an alloy when mixed with gold makes it tougher and brighter). The body is useful agent for holy love.

The influence of heavenly bodies on man comes through the air. So when a soul wishes to love another soul, it can contact it through the medium of the body. Hence a union of souls may need the contact of bodies as the first step.

Just as the blood which is an important constituent of our bodies labours to produce the essence (the semen) which helps in uniting two bodies, in the same way a spiritual love produces a kind of ecstasy which binds the two souls together. This subtle knot of love may not be fully understood.

Just as blood produces elements which brings about the union of sense and soul which constitute a man, in the same way the lover’s soul leaves some linking elements like the sense and the bodily faculties to express their love. The sense and faculty of the body come to the aid of the soul, which is like a prisoner. Just as a prince who is imprisoned cannot gain freedom unless somebody comes to his aid, in the same way the senses of the body go to the aid of the lover’s soul and secure freedom for it.

We must now turn to our bodies so that weak men may have a test of high love. Love sublimates the soul but it is through the medium of the body that love is first experienced. The body is as important as the soul in the matter of love.

If some lover like us has heard this discourse (made by two souls with one experience) let him look carefully at us. After our pure love when we go back to our bodies he will find no change in us because we shall not revert to physical self again.

Analysis

It is a complex and metaphysical poem dealing with the twin aspects of love-physical and spiritual. Some critics like Legouis find in it a plan for seduction with emphasis on the physical nature of love, while others like Helen Gardner find in it an affirmation of spiritual love. In fact, it deals with the relationship of the body and the soul in love.

What is ‘extasie’?

‘Extasie’ is essentially a religious experience in which the individual soul, ignoring the body, holds converse with Divinity. It is a feelings of trance, of spiritual exaltation, and of Samadhi where the individual has a vision of the divine. Donne applies these feelings to the experience of the lovers and finds that the essence of love is not sex but an overpowering feeling of unity in diversity. In fact, truelove is an activity of the soul. A new soul emanates from the two individual souls and makes the lover realise that love is, in its pure essence, spiritual. Donne has also interpreted love in a philosophic way.Love is an idea or a concept concretized through physical enjoyment of sex. He has also interpreted it according to the Platonic concept- the desire of the moth for the star, longing of one soul to seek communication with another. Another idea introduced in the poem has been borrowed from astronomy.Just as heavenly bodies are moved by “intelligences” i.e., angelic spirits, in the same way souls are the motivating forces in human love, though they have no existence of their own. They are linked with the body, which is the overt and apparent machinery for love-making. The soul expresses itself through the body. In other words, the body is a medium used by the soul to achieve the consummation of love.Thus the poem uses a religious and mystical experience to interpret the complexity and depth of secular love.

Development of Thought

The physical setting

The first stanza provides the physical setting of the two lovers. On the bank of a river overgrown with violet flowers, the lovers are quiet, looking into each other’s eyes and holding hands firmly. This physical closeness offers a romantic and pastoral setting- their hands cemented in mutual confidence and the eyes as if strung on a thread. This sensually exciting scene is a forerunner to the actual physical union.

The poet compares the two lovers to the two armies. The souls are like the negotiators. They are not committed to either side. Only those who are gifted can understand the dialogue of the two souls, and realize the true nature of love.

True nature of love

The communication of the souls of lovers reveals the true essence of love. Love is not sex-experience. It is rather a union of two souls. Each soul appears to keep its identity and as in horticulture,by transplantation the plant grows stronger and better, the new soul has a great strength and vitality.The fusion of the two souls is the real consummation of love. The new soul is composed of ‘atoms’ which are beyond decay. Just as the essence of the individual is not the body but the soul, in the same way, the essence of love is not sex but mutual dependence and affection. The body is no dross, but an alloy necessary for pure metals to become stronger. The body is the channel for the souls to inter-communicate with each other.

Is love physical or spiritual?

To this old and complex question, Donne has a satisfactory answer. Love is dependent both on the soul and body. Love has to be concretized. This is possible only thought the physical play of love. Donne feels that physical love is enriched by the mutual understanding of the souls of the two lovers. Spiritual love is not possible in a vacuum. Like heavenly beings who influence the actions of men through manifestation, the souls must express themselves through the bodies. The poet feels that an isolated soul is like a captive prince. Souls must return to the bodies and manifest the mystery of love. As from the blood comes strength and vigour which acts as an agent of the soul and binds together elements which go into the making of man, so the body and the sense organs are at the disposal and service of the lovers’ souls, otherwise the souls cannot express themselves. The body is the book of the love. Great mystics have also pleased for the evolution of physical love towards holy or divine love.

Finally, the poet feels that love ripens in the soul. As such, physical love and holy love are complementary. If some lover observes the poet and his beloved, he will hardly find any change in their behaviour when the lovers return to their bodies.


The poet employs an unusual desire through ‘extasie’ which means ‘to stand out’. The souls of the poet and his beloved as it were, stand out of their respective bodies and hold a dialogue revealing the true nature of their love. In a religious ‘extasie’ the soul holds a communication with God. Here the conversation is not between the soul and God but between two souls. Donne has artistically explained the religious and philosophical belief to throw light on physical and sensuous love. The greatness of the poem lies in reconciling the opposites-physical love with spiritual love, metaphysical belief with the scientific, the abstract with the concrete, the human element with the non-human. The images and the conceits are carefully selected to support the poet’s views. The romantic setting at the beginning of the poem sets the mood of physical love- the violet flowers, the holding of hands and the cementing of the balms and the threading of the eye beams. The physical aspect of love must precede the spiritual union.Then comes the image of two armies and the soul acting as negotiator. Then, there are the images of the new soul-emanating out of the two souls-stronger and abler because it is made out of ‘atoms’. The inter-dependence of the body and the soul is expressed through metaphors. The souls are moving spirits, while the bodies are the ‘sphere’ in which the ‘intelligences’ move. Just as the stars and planets give rise to natural phenomena which affect the fortunes of human beings, in the same way the soul must find expression through the body. Just as the spirits of blood unite the physical and metaphysical in love,so souls express themselves through the five senses in the body. The image of the body as lovers, is very vivid and convincing.

The poet shifts quickly from the physical to the spiritual and therefore this poem has an edge over other metaphysical poems. The very fact that critics disagree about the objective of the poem-seduction or spiritual transport-shows the complexity and the diversity of possible interpretations. On the whole, the critics praise the poet for his excellent performance. Coleridge said : “I would never find fault with metaphysical poems, were they all like this (extasie) or just half as excellent.” James Smith commended the poem in the following words : “Donne does not write about many things; he is content with the identity of lovers as lovers, and their diversity as the human beings in which love manifests itself,the stability and self sufficiency of love, contrasted with the mutability and dependence of human beings; with the presence of lovers to each other, their physical unity, though they are separated by travel and death, the spirit demanding the succor of the flesh hampering the spirit, the shortcoming of this life, summarised by decay and death, contrasted with the divine to which it aspires.”

For reconciling the dichotomy between the flesh and the sensuous and the sublime, particularly in this poem, Donne deserves credit.


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