Defending Donne's Purpose
Writer’s comment: Since reading “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” I have been interested in the work of John Donne, who writes beautiful love poems. After discussing “The Ecstasy” in small groups, my English 3 teacher told us it was a sexual poem disguised as a spiritual love poem. I refused to believe that my John Donne could be so crude, and thus I took on the task of defending Donne.
Instructor’s comment: Julia Sorenson wrote her essay on “The Ecstasy” in my English 3 class. Once my students had chosen poems to write on for their second major essay, I broke them into groups. Seven or eight students had chosen to write on Donne’s “The Ecstasy.” While they were working on it, I introduced the central problem of the poem’s critical history: Is this a genuinely philosophical Neo-Platonic text or is it a parody of Neo-Platonism? Is the speaker’s love as elevated as he would have us believe, or does the poem have a baser subtext? While I tried not to take a definite position, I had implied that more was going on than met the eye, that Donne’s speaker was a suspect philosopher at best, and a disingenuous seducer at worst. Once everyone was alert to that possibility, they found plenty of evidence for it.
Julia was the only one to resist my implied reading and the other students’ prompt agreement. We talked more than once as she wrote because she had come up against a difficult rhetorical problem. If she wanted to argue that this was a poem about the possibility of pure love between pure souls, she would have to explain the suggestiveness of some of its imagery. Julia eventually surprised me with a brilliant solution, arguing that “The Ecstasy” is a sort of litmus test for its reader, separating the pure-minded reader from the impure, thus substantiating the rarity and purity of the love described. I enjoyed her paper for its bold claims, its thoroughness, and its clever use of evidence. Like the best essays, it tries to say something new, opening up the text as it explores it.
—Jason Denham, English Department
John Dunne’s “The Ecstasy” is a poem about the superiority of spiritual love and is written in such a way as to distinguish between those who love spiritually and those who are content to love only physically. Donne shows that physical love is related to spiritual love but that physical love is merely a resting place for spiritual love to manifest itself in.
Donne intentionally draws a line between two groups of people who read this poem. Donne’s main audience understands, or attempts to understand, Donnes’ spiritual love and observes him united with his soul mate. The second group are those who are weak, and do not understand the spiritual love that Donne explains. The following lines show the distinction: >
Weak men on love revealed may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
And if some lover, such as we,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us; he shall see
Small change when we’re to bodies gone. (69-76)
The “weak men” see that there are extensive mysteries to love, but they only rely on their bodies for experience. Their own bodies are their books, meaning that they only learn from their physical experiences and senses. They do not go out and “read into” the spiritual love that the speaker is so adamant about. The other group consists of lovers such as the speaker, who love spiritually. These lovers are able to experience genuine love because they recognize that they do not consist only of a physical body, but of a soul as well.
Donne does not reveal that there are two distinct audiences until the end of the poem. This prevents the reader from classifying himself in one category or the other in the beginning and thus subconsciously choosing the one he thinks is most preferred. At the end of the poem, after the reader has digested the content, he will be honest with himself and wonder if he was thinking about spiritual or physical love the whole time. Then the two types of lovers are categorized and Donne’s partition is clear, thus defining the men that men fall short of the perfect spiritual love he expresses.
To make the distinction between spiritual lovers and physical lovers, Donne uses earthly words to explain spiritual encounters, as in the following lines:
A pregnant bank swelled up to rest
The violet’s reclining head,
Sat we two, one another’s best. (1-4)
Here Donne uses words such as “bed,” “pregnant,” “reclining,” and “swell” which can easily be taken for sensual words. The image of a pillow on a bed is harmless. The violet is an emblem of faithful love and truth and is resting on a bank. These images are what the two lovers are compared to. They are resting with each other, and complementing each other by just sitting there as, “one another’s best.” So either one will see the two pictures illustrating the couples companionship, or he will notice the sensuality of the words and instinctively relate them to the couple’s love. This makes the distinction between those who understand Donne’s love and those who have never even dreamt of it. We see that he uses words with multiple connotations and creates an undertone that partitions weak men and real lovers.
Again, Donne creates a picture of the two lovers, and craftily uses sensual words to describe his images:
Was all the means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation. (9-12)
The picture here shows Donne with his lover without any physical intimacy, except for the grasping of each other’s hands. The holding of hands was all the means to make them one where “to make them one” means to combine their entire existences into one body, one soul, one mind. The words “intergraft” and “propagation” might once again stimulate physical ideas of love, but the line is saying that they do not need literal propagation because of the pictures in their eyes are sufficient for them. Donne is cunningly using these words in order to fully sway the sensual lover into thinking about physical love. After doing this, he will not be enlightened with understanding the spiritual love Donne boasts about. Essentially, Donne uses sexual words to show that there is no sexual dependence in the relationship and to draw a line between the physical and spiritual lovers.
Donne insists that he has this superior spiritual love by describing it extensively. He describes his love united with his lover’s, and shows its advantages:
The strength the color, and the size
(All which before was poor and scant)
Redoubles still and multiplies.
When love, with another so
Interinanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controls. (37-44)
The violet here, perhaps in a confined area, has nowhere to go, just as our individual souls can be faithful and truthful by themselves, but there is no sense in possessing personal faithfulness. One must transmit these qualities through another person. When transplanted, or combined with another soul, the violet is able to grow in this new soil and it takes root and flourishes. The innocent soul of a lover, likewise, has room to flourish when it is mixed with its mate in the new abler soul. For two parts are greater than the whole, and the love of two people together is more than either of their remote loves.
Another interpretation of this part of the poem is that the violet is a physical part of the speaker and that the imagery is purely sexual. At looking only at that part, it may appear so, but this imagery immediately follows these lines:
We see we saw not what did move;
But as all several souls contain
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love these mixed souls doth mix again,
And makes both one, each this and that. (31-36)
Donne has just finished saying that “it was not sex” that they loved, but the mixture or concoction of their souls. It would be contradictory to explicitly say that and then put in sexual imagery immediately following it. Both readings, though, are appropriate for the two different views. The one, that love flourishes when united with another soul, and the second, that love is expressed physically through sex. The reading that one chooses depends on his predispositions. If he believes that love is spiritual, he will understand the spiritual interaction between the lovers, but if he has chiefly experienced physical love, the physical imagery will be the prominent picture.
In Donne’s spiritual love, there is the union of his and his lover’s soul into one. This union is the great ecstasy of love:
That he soul’s language understood
And by good love were grown all mind,
Within convenient distance stood
He (though he knew not which soul spake,
Because both meant, both spake the same)
Might thence a new concoction take,
And part far purer than he came.
This ecstasy doth unperplex,
We said, and tell us what we love;
We see by this it was not sex;
We see we saw not what did move. (21-32)
The union of their souls into one abler, glorious soul is the best part of love. When one loves he may not know what he loves so much about love. On only a physical level, he might love the pleasure or excitement, but on a spiritual level, a union is formed between the two. The physical union is rewarding, but it is an effect of the spiritual love, not the cause of the ecstasy. The ecstasy is the simplification of their union by making their two souls into one. Sex is the physical manifestation of this union, and still a consequence of the love. But sex is not what makes the love rewarding, rather, it is a supplement to the spiritual love.
This is how Donne thinks love should be, and he knows that many will fall short of knowing the spiritual love and not be able to experience it. There may be one who will be able to understand Donne’s love, and he is the one “so by love refined.” Only those refined by love will understand the depth and purity of Donne’s love. Those not refined are the weak lovers who will not “part far purer” after seeing his love, they will not even comprehend it.
These are the people he traps into thinking this is a sexual poem. Donne knows that there is no point in telling them about spiritual love if they are never going to experience it. They might as well enjoy their naïve physical love and be content with it. Donne does not feel the need to impart his great revelation to them, only to expose his ideas to keen listeners.
Donne respects the physical love even though he does not rely on it, and admits that it is important to us, just as our physical bodies are a necessity for life:
Th’intelligences, they the spheres.
We owe them thanks because they thus
Did us to us at first convey,
Yielded their forces, sense, to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay. (51-56)
“They’re ours, though they’re not we” means that our bodies belong to us, but they are not who we are. Who we are depends on our souls, or our intelligences, and the spheres, or worlds that carry our intelligences, being our bodies. Bodies are not hindrances to us “Nor are dross to us, but allay” because bodies make us stronger, and carry us through life. We know our bodies before we know ourselves, “[they] Did us to us at first convey,” meaning that through our bodies, we come to know our physical capabilities and senses. Notice “us” refers to the soul entirely, the body is only a container and an aid.
So we see that bodies are a necessity for our lives and souls, but it is clear that Donne does not think that they are the essential part of the relationship, and thus physical love is not a crucial part of the spiritual bond. However, since we do live in a physical world, the physical world is a substantial part of our lives and we must return to it and love each other using our senses:
Spirits like souls as it can,
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot which makes us man:
So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To ‘affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend;
Else a great Prince in prison lies. (61-68)
Just as the mind controls the body and the body nourishes the mind, our souls must return to the physical world since that is where they originated. We must understand the relationship between the body and the soul or we will do a great disservice to ourselves. To say a prince is in prison means that something great is being held back. Without manifesting one’s spiritual love in a physical way, the love is held back as if it were a prince, confined within the walls of the soul. So in fact, it is important to return to the physical world because we are human. The warning is that we should not depend on the physical world for our love, but use it as a supplement or a continuum only. Donne says that there is “Small change when we’re to bodies gone,” meaning that when lovers return to their physical bodies their spiritual love is still whole and pure, whereas, if they had loved any other way, they would not be able to love as purely in their physical state.
Donne respects physical love and even recognizes some reliance on it, but he does not think highly of anyone who depends only on it. These are the people in his “second audience” who will be only fulfilled physically through their love. They are blinded from the spiritual meaning of love. They are tricked into believing that the body is all-important and substantial. Those who love with a spiritual love, though, will see Donne’s love and be fulfilled by it and therefore love more than they had before, end even know what it is they love.
Donne, John. "The Ecstacy." The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th edition, Ed. Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. New York: W.W. Norton. 276-278.