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...

(The entire section is 616 words.)