Analysis

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Last Updated on August 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

"The Ecstasy" is a metaphysical poem written by famed English poet John Donne. It is commonly referred to as "The Extasie," as this is the poem's original title. It consists of 76 lines, which are sometimes organized into 19 stanzas. Each line is in iambic tetrameter, and each stanza follows...

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"The Ecstasy" is a metaphysical poem written by famed English poet John Donne. It is commonly referred to as "The Extasie," as this is the poem's original title. It consists of 76 lines, which are sometimes organized into 19 stanzas. Each line is in iambic tetrameter, and each stanza follows a basic abab rhyme scheme.

"The Ecstasy" is considered to be one of Donne's most popular love poems; however, there are some critics, poets, and writers who feel that the poem is a bit too explicit. (C. S. Lewis notably thought that the poem's argument that the body can express the soul's pure and divine love through sex was "singularly unpleasant.") Nonetheless, the majority of analysts agree that the poem is one of Donne's most influential and meaningful, as well as one of the most complex poems in his literary opus. According to some, Donne wrote the poem to showcase his endless devotion to his wife, whom he loved dearly.

The poem is essentially about the connection and relationship between body and soul. Donne agrees with Plato's philosophy on love and soulmates, and believes that the purest form of love is born when the souls of two lovers connect spiritually. As a Christian, he also agrees with the Christian teaching that the state of ecstasy that lovers feel is a way to connect and communicate with God and divine forces. 

However, unlike Plato and the Church, Donne argues that the most authentic way for souls to achieve pure spiritual love and connection is to connect physically—or, in other words, sexually. Thus, Donne is one of the first poets of his time to present the act and the concept of sexual pleasure in a more modern context.

Donne doesn't explicitly say that sex is the only way to achieve true love, but he argues that physical connection between bodies is as important and necessary as spiritual connection between souls. To strengthen his point, Donne uses numerous metaphors of connection and imbrication, all of which conform to two central ideas: first, that the body is an essential means of allowing souls to communicate ("Love's mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is his book"), and second, that attempting to sever this fundamental connection between body and soul is akin to destroying the "subtle knot which makes us man."

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

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 quickly turn to peaceful parleying, perhaps because they recognize their equality and therefore the impossibility of the triumph of one over the other. Before presenting to the reader these two souls standing apart from their bodies—the literal meaning of the poem’s title—Donne introduces a platonic listener, one who is “all mind” and hence has rejected physical love. This third person will benefit from his eavesdropping by learning something more about the nature of love.

With line 29, the poem begins the “dialogue of one,” a conversation between the souls in which both say the same thing. In their disembodied state, the souls recognize that they are attracted to each other not through sexual desire but through spiritual love. This love allows their separate, flawed, ignorant souls to unite and compensate for each other’s deficiencies. To explain this abstract concept, Donne refers again to the violet, which, when it is transplanted, grows with increased vigor. So, too, the fusion of the lovers’ souls produces a new, “abler soul” that knows itself and is perfect. Because this new soul has no deficiencies, it transcends mortality.

In line 49, the souls, having fused and so attained knowledge and perfection, resolve for a variety of reasons to return to their bodies. The first argument they offer is their responsibility to do so; they are like the angels that guide the planets (according to medieval cosmologists) or the celestial “intelligences” supposedly in charge of each of the spheres that comprise the cosmos (lines 51-52). A second reason to return is that the bodies deserve thanks for first bringing the lovers together (lines 53-56). Bodies are not impediments to love; on the contrary, physical love strengthens the spiritual. Just as planets affect people through the air rather than through direct influence, so spirits must act through bodies. If love is to be free, it requires physical as well as spiritual outlets.

The last eight lines offer the final reason for the souls to reembody themselves: to instruct the uninitiated in the nature of love. Those who do not understand spiritual love need sensual evidence, and even the platonic lover who appeared earlier in the poem will learn that his understanding was incomplete because it excluded the physical.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 345

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.

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