Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738
John Donne (1572–1631) was a poet and cleric who is most often classified as a metaphysical poet: one who addresses highly abstract themes and concerns within the context of seventeenth-century England. The work of metaphysical poets is characterized by intense philosophical thought and the use of conceits, or extended metaphors, that allow abstract questions to be mapped onto the physical world. Donne is often cited as the quintessential metaphysical poet because of his intense probings into desire, love, divinity, death, and ultimate meaning, as well as his ability to rest within paradox without seeking definitive answers.
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In “The Ecstasy,” Donne delineates his belief that true love entwines spiritual and bodily aspects. As the poem begins, two lovers sit on a riverbank, holding hands and looking into one another’s eyes. Donne’s speaker chooses images that emphasize the state the two lovers share: their connection and ultimate oneness. He describes a physical state that results from their intense eye contact—
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.
—as well as the way the lovers’ souls are “hung ’twixt her and me,” residing in neither of their individual bodies but rather in the space between the two.
The only way the lovers are physically connected, so far, is by holding hands; the speaker notes that “pictures in our eyes to get / Was all our propagation” (which means that they have not had sex). The movement of the lovers’ souls is the only action that occurs at this point in the poem. Donne notes that the two lay “sepulchral” (like tombs) and do not speak.
In line 21, the poem shifts from describing the lovers’ setting, and the speaker contends that any man “by love refin’d / That he soul’s language understood”—any man who understands romantic love—would learn something from observing the lovers’ union of souls. In fact, he says that the man would leave “far purer than he came,” thus invoking an element of divine purity and meaning in the lovers’ experience.
At this point, Donne’s speaker notes that “This ecstasy doth unperplex.” That is, ecstasy—meaning an overwhelming sense of emotion and trancelike delight, and deriving from the ancient Greek word meaning “standing outside oneself”—makes things simpler, and it necessarily involves the body as well as the mind. The speaker argues that love creates one shared soul that proves better than either of the lovers’ individual souls:
When love with one another so
Interinanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controls.
This new, shared soul (which Donne notes the lovers themselves become) is deep, unchangeable, and complete.
The poem shifts from consideration of the soul to consideration of its containing bodies with the question in lines 49–50:
But oh alas, so long, so far,
Our bodies why do we forbear?
Through this utterance, Donne’s speaker nods at the tradition of carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) poetry, which argues that life is short and that people should enjoy it—often by means of sex. Donne, however, takes this a step further: the lovers’ bodies are the possessions of their minds and souls, he argues, and so enjoying sex with a loved one is no harm (after all, the lovers’ bodies “are not we”). In fact, the speaker says that “we owe them thanks”: the lovers’ bodies allow them to express an otherwise inexpressible soul-love to one another.
The speaker then compares the expression of true love by sex to God’s own dealings, which must manifest in physical creations and actions in order for people to perceive them:
On man heaven’s influence works not so,
But that it first imprints the air;
So soul into soul may flow,
Though it to body first repair.
Donne argues that attempting to separate spiritual (or soul) and physical (or sexual) love is much like untying the “subtle knot which makes us man”; the two are so intertwined that it is impossible to divide them without consequence. He writes that the attempt to confine love to the mind alone is much like placing “a great prince in prison.”
In sum, lovers turn to the body in order to share and show the soul. Donne likens the body to a book that allows the mind and spirit to be read and understood:
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.