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June 5, 2007

John Donne, The Ecstacy

(In Portsmouth, New Hampshire) In a review by John Carey, I came upon a strange and wonderful John Donne poem, "The Ecstacy." Here it is in the left column with my literal paraphrase to the right. (Literal interpretation seems to me a necessary first step in understanding metaphysical poetry, or any dense verse.)

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.

1. Two people (the narrator and a woman; see 4) who are fond of one another sit on a flowery bank.

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.

2. They hold hands and look into one another's eyes.

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.

3. They unite by holding hands and visualizing the same object (possibly the propagation of the violet mentioned below: 10)

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

4. Their souls meet in between their bodies and ...

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.

5. negotiate (possibly about whether to have sex; see 13) while they lie still and silent for the whole 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,

6. If a third person who fully understood love stood nearby, ...

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.

7. he could benefit morally from what they say in one voice, which is:

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:

8. "This state of fusion shows us that we did not love sex or bodily motion, ...

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.

9. but the union of two souls that were never self-sufficent.

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

10. If you replant a single flower (perhaps the violet in 1), it can grow and multiply.

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

11. [Likewise,] when two souls are in love, they create one better soul.

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.

12. We are this new soul, composed of our own original souls as atoms.

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.

13. But why do we shun our bodies?

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.

14. It was through our bodily sensations that we learned to love; bodies are not superfluous but are mixed with souls into an alloy.

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.

15. Just as heaven (i.e., stars or angels) must influence us through the physical medium of air, so a soul communicates with a soul by means of the body.

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;

16. We struggle bodily to create images that are like souls (referring either to the common thought mentioned in 3 or to conceiving a child).

So must pure lovers' souls descend
    To affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
    Else a great prince in prison lies.

17. Thus we must descend from thought to our senses ...

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.

18. and appreciate one another's bodies."

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

19. And if the third person stayed to watch us have sex, he would still think that we were spiritually united.

The movement of the poem is from static bodies upward to thoughts and then back into animated bodies. At the beginning, "we" are two separate motionless physical objects (we "sat"; we "lay"). In the middle verses, "we" are one disembodied consciousness, addressing a passive third party and deciding whether to reenter our bodies. At the end, body and soul are one.

I read the poem as an argument by a male narrator to a female lover that they should have sex, because it will be like "ecstasy" (a religious "state of rapture that stupefies the body while the soul contemplates divine things"). In that case, the claim that both souls speak as one in the middle of the poem is more of a hope or a lure than a fact. There is some irony in the poem--a gap between what the narrator means and what he says, and perhaps also between how he sees himself and how we are supposed to see him. But the irony hardly cancels the sensuality of this poem that begins with pregnant swelling banks and ends with souls gone to bodies in plain view of an approving observer.

June 5, 2007 6:56 AM | category: fine arts | Comments


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