The Ecstasy by John Donne: Summary and Critical Analysis

The poem The Ecstasy is one of John Donne's most popular poems, which expresses his unique and unconventional ideas about love. It expounds the theme that pure, spiritual or real love can exist only in the bond of souls established by the bodies. For Donne, true love only exists when both bodies and souls are inextricably united. Donne criticizes the platonic lover who excludes the body and emphasizes the soul.

John Donne (1572-1631)

The fusion of body and soul strengthens spiritual love. Donne compares bodies to planets and souls to the angels that body and souls are inseparable but they are independent. According to the medieval mystical conception, 'ecstasy' means a trance-like state in which the soul leaves the body, comes out, and holds communion with the Divine, the Supreme or the Over-soul of the Universe. In Christianity also, it denotes the state of mystic/religious communion with God. Donne uses the religious and philosophical term with religious and philosophical connotations to build his own theory of love.

The poem is an expression of Donne's philosophy of love. Donne agrees with Plato that true love is spiritual. It is a union of the souls. But unlike Plato, Donne doesn't ignore the claims of the body. It is the body that brings the lovers together. Love begins in sensuous apprehension, and spiritual love follows the sensuous. So the claim of the body must not be ignored. Union of bodies is essential to make possible the union of souls. The poem is an unbroken series of narration, argument and even contemplation.

The poet begins the narration of the event with a typically passionate scene as the backdrop for the lovers to embrace and experience the 'ecstasy'. The setting is natural, very calm and quiet. The scenery is described in erotic terms: the riverbank is "like a pillow on a bed"; it also is "pregnant". The reference to pillow, bed and pregnancy suggest sexuality, though the poet says that their love is 'asexual'. Indeed, the image of asexual reproduction of the violent plant is used to compare the lovers' only 'propagation'. It is springtime, and violets are in bloom. To a Renaissance reader, the image of violets symbolizes faithful love and truth. It is pastoral settings were lovers are sitting together, holding each others hand and looking intently into each other's eyes. Their eyes meet and reflect the images of each other, and their sights are woven together. They get a kind of sensation within their hearts and blood, resulting in perspiration and blushing. They become ecstatic because their souls have escaped from their bodies to rise to a state of bliss. When love joins two souls, they mingle with each other and give birth to a new and finer soul, which removes the defects and supplies whatever is lacking in either single soul. The new re-animated soul made up of their two separate souls gives them the ecstasy. But they cannot forget the body, which is the vehicle, and container, cover and house of the soul.

The lovers' souls leave their bodies, which become mere lifeless figures. Finally, they are united into a single soul. Donne tries to convey the readers that the foundation of spiritual love is the physical attachment; the eyes serve as a gateway to the soul. Moreover, the physical union has produced an even stronger spiritual bond that is far more powerful than each individual's soul. Donne refers the violet to tell us that the fusion of the lover's soul produces a new "abler soul" like the violet, which doubles its vigor when it is grafted together with another. Then the lovers are now able to seek the spiritual pleasure rather than purely physical pleasure. In this union the two souls find strength like a violet when it is transplanted. As such, the single united soul is able to grow with new energy. The united soul is perfect, unchanging and also with new energy. The united soul is perfect, unchanging and also transcends the "defects of loneliness", or the single soul. The two lovers now understand that true love is the result of their physical attachment provoking spiritual union. Souls are spiritual beings. They move with the help of the bodies. Body is the medium of contact of the two souls. Therefore, the lovers turn to their bodies and try to understand the mystery of love. Body is the medium to experience love. So spirits must act through bodies. If love is to be free, it requires physical as well as spiritual outlets.

The persona asks why our religious institutions have imposed blind thoughts diving the body and soul. The poem is also a criticism of the conventional idea of love that supports the separation of the bodies, and hence the souls. He makes an appeal to his readers to nourish their souls through their bodies and reach towards the point of extreme joy, or 'ecstasy'.

As a metaphysical poem this poem brings together (or juxtaposes) opposites; the poet has also reconciled such opposites as the medieval and the modern the spiritual and physical, the scientific or secular and the religious, the abstract and the concrete, the remote and the familiar, the ordinary and the metaphysical. This is largely done through imagery and conceit in which widely opposite concepts are brought together.

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Sharma, K.N. "The Ecstasy by John Donne: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013,