The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although “The Ecstasy” was initially printed without stanza breaks, a number of manuscripts suggest that John Donne conceived of this poem as containing nineteen separate quatrains of iambic tetrameter that trace the movement of lovers’ souls from their bodies and the souls’ union in that incorporeal state. “The Ecstasy” opens with the lovers sitting in an erotic pastoral landscape. The violets suggest springtime, the season of love. Though the lover and his lass are “one another’s best,” they have not yet consummated their relationship. Their only union thus far is the physical joining of palms, which are sweaty, and the spiritual linking of eyebeams. During the Renaissance, it was thought that love was engendered by beams shot from the eyes of the beloved; these beams then entered the eyes of the lover and traveled to the heart, where they inflamed the blood, causing such symptoms of affection as perspiration and blushing.

Reinforcing this theme of nonsexual union are references to horticulture and mirrors. One may propagate plants asexually through grafting, and one may reproduce oneself by looking into a mirror. In this poem, the eye is both the transmitter and the reflector of light, acting as a glass wherein each lover sees his or her own image.

The lovers’ souls now leave their bodies, reducing the lovers to lifeless figures one finds on tombs. They therefore no longer sit but lie. The souls may initially seek conquest—hence the military allusions—but...

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The Ecstasy Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The imagery in the poem repeatedly mediates between the sexual and the spiritual. The opening references to pillow, bed, and pregnancy suggest sexuality, but all these words refer to the landscape. In “To His Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell refers to his “vegetable [asexual] love,” the only kind that Donne’s couple has so far enjoyed. The violet, which in the language of flowers represents true love, again symbolizes the lovers of the poem, faithful to each other but not physical lovers. The doubling of the violet’s petals through transplantation reinforces the sense of vegetable love.

Grafting and transplanting provide asexual means of propagation; they also can improve plants, just as the union of the lovers’ souls improves the lovers. Alchemy offers another way to create and to perfect; such scientific imagery also appears in the poem. Though one associates alchemy with charlatans—a linkage relevant to this poem—the desire to transmute baser elements into gold was viewed also as a means of improving the world by producing a literal as well as metaphoric golden age and reversing the Fall (when metals grew baser). The platonic lover who has “grown all mind” has been “refined” already in an alchemical process, but he will be further improved by his encounter with the lovers in the poem because he will recognize the imposture and inadequacy of purely spiritual love. The union of the lovers’ souls, like the compounding of two chemicals, yields a purer product than either of its components; the fusion of body and soul strengthens spiritual love.

A third set of images involves astronomy/astrology. Donne often compares people to planets or to the cosmos, drawing on the medieval and Renaissance view that each individual, the microcosm, is like the universe, the macrocosm. So he compares bodies to planets and souls to the angels that control the motions of these objects. Later he uses the idea that stars and planets influence people’s lives, but they do so through the intermediary of air. Such conceits clarify the theory that body and soul are interdependent.