The Ecstacy by John Donne

by John Donne

WHERE, like a pillow on a bed,
    A pregnant bank swell'd up, to rest
The violet's reclining head,
    Sat we two, one another's best.

Our hands were firmly cemented
    By a fast balm, which thence did spring ;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
    Our eyes upon one double string.

So to engraft our hands, as yet
    Was all the means to make us one ;
And pictures in our eyes to get
    Was all our propagation.

As, 'twixt two equal armies, Fate
    Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls—which to advance their state,
    Were gone out—hung 'twixt her and me.

And whilst our souls negotiate there,
    We like sepulchral statues lay ;
All day, the same our postures were,
    And we said nothing, all the day.

If any, so by love refined,
    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 :

But as all several souls contain
    Mixture of things they know not what,
Love these mix'd souls doth mix again,
    And makes both one, each this, and that.

A single violet transplant,
    The strength, the colour, and the size—
All which before was poor and scant—
    Redoubles still, and multiplies.

When love with one another so
    Interanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
    Defects of loneliness controls.

We then, who are this new soul, know,
    Of what we are composed, and made,
For th' atomies of which we grow
    Are souls, whom no change can invade.

But, O alas ! so long, so far,
    Our bodies why do we forbear?
They are ours, though not we ; we are
    Th' intelligences, they the spheres.

We owe them thanks, because they thus
    Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their senses' force to us,
    Nor are dross to us, but allay.

On man heaven's influence works not so,
    But that it first imprints the air ;
For soul into the soul may flow,
    Though it to body first repair.

As our blood labours to beget
    Spirits, as 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.

To our bodies turn we then, that so
    Weak men on love reveal'd 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.

Definition: Ecstasy
Grierson explains “Ecstasy in Neo-platonic philosophy was the state of mind in which the soul, escaping from the body attuned to the vision of God, the one, the absolute:” The term ecstasy denotes the transition to a higher level where absolute truths are apprehensible to us beyond sense, reasoning and intellect. Just as another metaphysical poet, Richard Crashaw, describes spiritual or religious ecstasy in his “Hymn to St Teresa”. J Weemes asserts that ecstasy occurs when “the servants of God were taken up in spirit, separate as it were from the body, that they might see some heavenly mystery revealed unto them.”
In the prescribed poem, the souls of the two lovers free themselves from the definite confines of the physical construct of the body and become one physically and spiritually in an ecstatic union of souls.
Symbols of Love & Union
The first stanza portrays the two as sitting on an elevated area like a hill, or probably the bank of a river. The violet is set to rest upon this ‘elevation’ as if a pillow on a bed. The violet is emblematic of faithful love. The lovers that are each other’s best companion sit in serenity.
From the tight hand clasp their hands sweat, but the speaker asserts that it acts as a fast balm that cements the two. They are so close to each other that their eyes are held together super-focussed (‘twisted eyebeams’). Furthermore, it may also signify that they are sitting so close to one another, that they can see only one eye in the affixed stare.
Here, ‘grafting’ pertains to its technical meaning as well. As their hands were engrafted to meet, so did their bodies eventually. They meeting was destined thus physically and spiritually. At the current moment, they were engrossed in the pictures on each other’s eyes. The picture of the eye is a symbol of their union, in that the eye is filled with love for the beloved, and at the same time reflection of the beloved (the eyeball image of the other.) The pictures in their eyes may also signify dreams for the future especially in the form of ‘children’ that the word ‘propagation’ emphasizes.
Soul Mates
The souls are pictured as two armies set out to battle against each other. It has been common among celebrated writers to utilize epic protocol and similes to emblematize the confrontation of two opposing forces. However, here there is no triumph of one force over the other, and hence the term “equal armies”. Petrarchan poets also sometimes depicted the debates between souls. As the souls asserted themselves, the bodies lay motionless.
As the souls negotiated with each other, the two lay in peace .Their bodies were like sepulchral statues that lay still. The word ‘sepulchral’ also implies ‘funereal’. The speaker implies their spirit was above and divorced from worldly concerns. Their postures were static, they did not exhibit any body (worldly) language. Their silence spoke volumes. Therefore, the union here is something above sexual.
Only the person refined through true love could comprehend the soul’s language, The line also implies that if a person understood the soul’s language, it meant that he was purified And through good love rendered the ‘growing all minds’-enabled the maturing of minds. It could overcome barriers or distances.
The speaker states that it was indeed difficult to decipher which soul spoke for both spoke the same language and meant the same. ‘Concoction’ refers to the refining of metals by heat. They are much refined than when they came into this world. Their purity in this regard is even above that of babies who are a step closer to God.
The ecstasy has thereby purified them. It has enlightened them on what was hitherto unknown to them. The true nature of love does not verge on sexual intimacy. They saw (realized) without seeing, or apprehending though the sensory organs of perception. God is generally called “The Unmoved Mover”; and therefore their love was a faint reflection of this aspect of his.
Two Become One
The poet here discusses the ‘alchemy’ of love. Of the singular property of love that enables it to unite disparate elements that souls constitute. Love has the unique property of transforming and transmuting the nature of souls, amalgamting them (as metals) into a unified whole. The words ‘this’ and ‘that’ is the distinction between the two souls that unconditional love erases.
As a violet gets transplanted, it creates a new plant, that holds the properties of both the plants, and replenishes each other with their uncommon nutrients. Likewise, as the two plants are transplanted together, the new breed is powerful, as it combines the quality of both the souls, as a hybrid of their goodness.
Thus, as love animates two souls, their mutual communion constitutes the abler soul. Though it is single in its unity it is not lonely or in solitude. It is an emblem of perfection and free of defects.
This new soul is exempted from change that is normally inevitable. They are composed of elements that only grow in nature and stature; and change cannot be tarnished with the ravage of time.
Importance of a Physical Union
The poet ponders upon why their bodies have been relegated. The speaker’s arguments are based on medieval or Aristotelian Cosmology according to which an astral body is composed of a sphere and intelligence that controls the sphere. Neither possesses force without the other. The bodies and the souls are likewise interdependent as the bodies are the souls earthly reflection. It also points to the fact that bodily emotions that are a by-product of love cannot be deemed insignificant.
The lovers would not be able to feel and apprehend each other if it were not for the body. The body is not the scum or the material of sedimentary nature that occurs in the extraction of metals. Rather, they are like alloys, a super-addictive to metals that render them more durable over time. Likewise the presence of bodies would make love a more enduring reality. Note that Petrarchan love wins over Platonic love here.
The Cosmic forces of Nature influence the people on earth, only after it first influences the atmosphere. Likewise, spiritual forces require working themselves through a less refined medium. In their case the union of their bodies, may act as the medium for the spiritual love to work itself through.
The nervous system of man is not by itself a homogenous unit; it cannot remain autonomously intact. Rather, it requires the ‘vapour’ or spirits’ born of the thinner part of blood that will assign unity or integrate the nervous system as a whole. Similarly, love remains inadequate as it refrains from seeking bodily intervention and the physical faculties to aid the same.
Therefore they must give in to bodily emotions for the consummation of their love, lest the emotion of Love becomes impotent. “Else a great prince in prison lies.” This may refer to the soul imprisoned in a prison, and also may also denote that due to lack of procreation there will be no succession to the throne.
Satisfaction can be discovered in the union of the spirit and body. The body is supposed to be the Book of Love, where the mysteries of love are inscribed. As love grows in the soul, its ultimate fulfillment may be found in the body. Just as disbelievers of religion require some physical miracle before they believe, people weak in their faith of love should resort to physical revelation before the truly surrender to love.
A person who has truly experienced the feeling of love will comprehend how little the nature of their love has altered as the souls have returned to their earthly bodies. Therefore, the state of ecstasy can be realized within one’s body itself. It does not require the soul’s moving out from the body.

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