John Donne “The Ecstasy”

“The Ecstasy” is formally a rather simple poem, written in smooth 8-syllable lines, as if Donne had not wanted to get the form in the way of his ideas, which are very sophisticated. The opening stanza is full of the images of fertility: the lovers are sitting on a “pregnant bank”, swelling like “a pillow on a bed”. However, their behaviour still remains chaste: they are holding hands together and looking into each other’s eyes; the babies reflected in each other’s pupils are the only babies they are making so far. Their souls left their bodies (hence “the ecstasy” of the title, meaning literally “being out of place”) and are suspended in the air between them, while the lovers are in a comatose state, lying like tomb effigies and not saying a word. An observer, if he were as refined neo-Platonic as they were, would not be able to understand which soul was speaking, since they were already united and speaking with one voice, but could become somewhat even purer by the influence of this concoction the two souls mingled together produced. The new soul, produced by the combination of these two souls, is far wiser and nobler than two individual souls. These two souls are grafted upon each other, like a small violet transpanted into a new place grows and multiplies.

But let us not forget about the bodies! They are not all what we are but they are important parts of what we are: again using an image from the Ptolemaic astronomy, they are like the spheres, while we (or rather our minds) are like the angelic “intelligences” guarding them. We should be grateful to our bodies because they brought us together. We need our physicality to communicate with the world through our senses, or otherwise our souls would be like “a great prince in prison”. So our bodies should not be treated like “dross” in alchemy, an impurity, but “an alloy”, an element which makes the resulting substance stronger. Even if this hypothetical observer were able to hear the conversation (or rather the monologue) of the souls, there would be not much difference between the way the souls and the bodies communicate. All that is expressed in a language very heavily dependent on the jargon of alchemy, but still very beautiful and suggestive. For instance, Donne writes about the lovers as “unperplexed” by their ecstasy, as if perplexity was the normal state of human mind, and one reached higher understanding only through these mystical moments. He also nicely subverts the way “ecstasy” was used in his times, since it could refer to people who lost consciousness or their minds, for instance Shakespeare uses it referring to Othello’s epileptic fits. But Donne’s ecstasy is the opposite of “crazy”, in fact it means the communion with the higher consciousness.

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