Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Interpretations of “The Ecstasy” have ranged from Pierre Legouis’s view that it is a seduction poem to Ezra Pound’s assertion that it represents “Platonism believed,” at least to the extent that Donne accepts “the existence of an extra-corporal soul, and itsincarnation.” Both of these observations contain partial truths, but neither adequately expresses Donne’s concept of human love. The fusion of sexual and vegetative metaphors in the first quatrain indicates Donne’s belief in the necessity of both physical and spiritual love. The rejection of purely platonic love is implicit again in the discussion of the eavesdropper who has refined away the body.

Yet what can be purer than platonic love? Donne maintains that spiritual love alone is actually less pure than when it is joined with sex. As the alchemical imagery demonstrates, the physical improves rather than diminishes the spiritual. Line 68 again plays with this seeming paradox by alluding to the traditional view that the soul lies imprisoned in the body and longs to escape from that impurity. Donne reverses this convention by declaring that unless lovers’ bodies join as well as their souls, love becomes a prisoner lacking the freedom to express itself as it would.

If the poem emphasizes the sexual more than the spiritual, the reason may well lie in the recognition that the lovers’ souls are already united. Contrary to the received opinion that love begins with...

(The entire section is 410 words.)