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.
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,...
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