The Ecstasy is one of the most famous metaphysical poems of John Donne. It deals with the twin aspects of love- physical and spiritual. The first stanza provides the physical setting of the two lovers. On the bank of a river overgrown with violet flowers, the lovers sit quiet, looking into each other’s eyes and holding hands firmly. This physical closeness offers a romantic and pastoral setting—their hands cemented in mutual confidence and the eyes as if strung on a thread. This sensually exciting scene is a forerunner to the actual physical union.
The poet compares the two lovers to the two armies. The souls are like the negotiators. They are not committed to either side. Only those who are gifted can understand the dialogue of the two souls, and realize the true nature of love.
The communication of the souls of lovers reveals the true essence of love. Love is not a sex-experience. It is rather a union of two souls. Each soul appears to keep its identity and as in horticulture, by transplantation the plant grows stronger and better, the new soul has a great strength and vitality. The fusion of the two souls is the real consummation of love. The new soul is composed of ‘atoms’ that are beyond decay. Just as the essence of the individual is not the body but the soul, in the same way, the essence of love is not sex but mutual dependence and affection. The body is no dross, but an alloy necessary for pure metals to become stronger. The body is the channel for the souls to inter-communicate with each other.
According to Donne love is dependent both on the soul and body. Love has to be concretized. This is possible only through the physical play of love. Donne feels that physical love is enriched by the mutual understanding of the souls of the two lovers. Spiritual love is not possible in a vacuum. Like heavenly beings who influence the actions of men through manifestation, the souls must express themselves through the bodies. The poet feels that an isolated soul is like a captive prince. Souls must return to the bodies and manifest the mystery of love. As from the blood comes strength and vigour which acts as an agent of the soul and binds together elements which go into the making of man, so the body and the sense organs are at the disposal and service of the lovers’ souls, otherwise the soul cannot express themselves. The body is the book of love. Great mystics have also pleaded for the evolution of physical love towards holy or divine love.
Finally, the poet feels that love ripens in the soul. As such, physical love and holy love are complementary. If some lover observes the poet and his beloved, he will hardly find any change in their behaviour when the lovers return to their bodies.
‘Extasie’ is essentially a religious experience in which the individual soul, ignoring the body, holds converse with Divinity. It is a feeling of trance, of spiritual exaltation, and of Samadhi where the individual has a vision of the divine. Donne applies the feeling to the experience of the lovers and finds that the essence of love is not sex but an overpowering feeling of unity in diversity. In fact, true love is an activity of the soul. A new soul emanates from the two individual souls and makes the lover realise that love is, in its pure essence, spiritual. Donne has also interpreted love in a philosophic way. Love is an idea or a concept concretized through the physical enjoyment of sex. He has also interpreted it according to the Platonic concept—the desire of the moth for the star, longing of one soul to seek communication with another, Another idea introduced in the poem has been borrowed from astronomy. Just as heavenly bodies are moved by “intelligences” i.e., angelic spirits, in the same way souls are the motivating forces in human love, though they have no existence of their own. They are linked with the body, which is the overt and apparent machinery for love-making. The soul expresses itself through the body. In other words, the body is a medium used by the soul to achieve the consummation of love. Thus the poem uses a religious and mystical experience to interpret the complexity and depth of secular love.