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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

The Importance of Both Spiritual and Physical Dimensions of Love

Donne explores the idea that love implicates not only the soul but also the body. The poem’s speaker and his lover first engage in an intertwining of souls. The narrator considers their souls “equal armies” that create something in between them, a suspension of “uncertain victory.” As they lie quietly on the riverbank, their souls intermingle to create a combined soul even stronger than either of theirs can be alone. The speaker wants to be clear about this mingling of their souls:

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We see by this it was not sex,
We see we saw not what did move . . .

Donne admits that love here does not equate to sex, and love does not always follow sex. Love is a higher calling: a meeting of the minds and spirits. However, sex allows these souls to meet and commune with one another, and thus is necessary as an expression of true love. The lovers “owe” their bodies “thanks,” Donne writes,

because they thus
Did us, to us, at first convey . . .

He acknowledges that, after this new soul of one is created, the lovers’ bodies long to commune through physical intimacy. This initial spark of love, the creation of a new singular soul between them, and the communion that is sex is the foundation upon which the rest of their relationship will rest.

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Likenesses Between Divinity and Love

Throughout the poem, Donne draws subtle comparisons between God, particularly as expressed in nature, and true romantic love. Nature provides the background for the union of the lovers’ souls: they recline on a riverbank, and their combined soul is compared to a “single violet transplant” that “Redoubles still, and multiplies.” Further, their love is likened to a purifying force that can inspire others. Donne's assertion that the purity of their souls is reflected in the purity of their natural surroundings is an important backbone of his claim that their union is far more than simply a sexual act. It transcends the physical world. 

Donne writes that we cannot perceive God except as through the physical world and nature:

On man’s heaven’s influence works not so
But that it first imprints the air . . .

In the same way, the lovers cannot perceive the measure of each other’s love without recourse to the physical, through the medium of sex. “So soul into soul may flow,” the speaker says, by moving first into the body:

To’our bodies turn we then . . .

Just as God’s creation is to God’s divinity itself, physical union is to the union of lovers’ souls.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

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 physical attraction, or lust, and then grows into a marriage of true minds, Donne posits that, at least in the circumstances of the poem, the desire for sex does not bring the couple together. They began as soul-mates, but because they are human their love remains incomplete until it is consummated physically. The poem recognizes, too, that religion, poetic convention, and the intellectual vogue of the court of Charles I all conspire to glorify nonsexual love. Such an attitude is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough in accepting the distinction between mortals and angels.

Though the poem could provide arguments for seducers, it does not celebrate physical love alone any more than it does spiritual love divorced from sex. As an individual consists of body and soul, so human love must combine both. Only when sexual love expresses the spiritual will an impartial observer be unable to distinguish between the two; to insist on either one without the other is to ignore “that subtle knot, which makes us” human.

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