The “Subtle Knot”: Entwining Factors in John Donne’s “The Ecstasy”

By Danielle Dickinson '12

Independent Study in John Donne’s Poetry

Danielle Dickinson’s essay clearly set out the crux of the argument about this poem and placed her own insights into the broader historical and critical context. Her own interpretive synthesis was informed by a sophisticated understanding of various critical perspectives, and her writing was clear and persuasive.

-Walter Cannon

John Donne’s “The Ecstasy” has been a site of critical disagreements for centuries. Critics, like Marotti and Hadfield, have noted the apparently Neo-Platonic elements paired with contradictory word choice, like the suggestive “pregnant” in the opening lines as just one example of the ambiguous nature of the poem. Often it has been said to be a serious argument advocating a soul-body union (Leishman, Gardner), but it has even been called an elaborate poem of seduction (Legouis). While it is clearly not a poem of seduction since the speaker does not address his mistress but some outside party, this interpretation brings up an important viewpoint. If the poem can be read in such a way, something about it must make it less than a fervent argument for an ideal philosophy of love.

Andrew Hadfield, an intertextual critic, notes that “The Ecstasy” has been “too often read as if it were a solemn philosophical argument, existing among a number of somewhat more disposable lyrics” (60). By ignoring the vehicle and aesthetics of the poem, we miss out on the full meaning of the work. Likewise Patrick Cruttwell and T. Katharine Thomason agree that Donne’s poems are about effect and reader response, rather than an intention. Cruttwell even asserts that Donne’s love poetry “is a body of verse whose effect (rather than intention; I suspect it had no intention) is to present as total a knowledge of the experience of love as one imagination could compass” (326). Since the effect of poems is key, the vehicle becomes of utmost importance, over even the philosophical arguments that may also be present.

I argue that, as usual in Donne’s poetry, the way an argument is presented, usually very logically and meticulously, is in fact more important than the philosophy laid out. By comparing arguably his most serious work, “Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” I will demonstrate that this poem is not one to be taken completely seriously. However, it is certainly more restrained than his early elegies. By examining this complex balance of “jest and earnest” as J.B. Leishman dubs them, one can make a more accurate reading of the poem, since regarding all of the Songs and Sonnets as being equally representative of Donne’s views is as inappropriate as regarding them all as “simply ingenious or outrageous paradoxes” (145). However, while Leishman deems “The Ecstasy” as a “serious [analysis] of love, as distinct from merely witty or paradoxical generalizations upon it” (179), I argue that the most correct reading is a balance of his jest and earnest. Once I have established the proper lens with which to read the poem, I will explain how the poem means.

In “Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” argued to be an autobiographical work about Donne and his wife Anne More when he journeyed in 1611 (Norton 71), Donne takes on a very somber tone. It begins with gentle word choices like “virtuous,” “mildly,” “whisper” and so on that illustrate a kinder, more serious tone (1, 2). Here, the complex logical argument comparing the speaker and his lover’s relationship to a compass matches the seriousness of the word choice, like “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests.” This word choice is reminiscent of Petrarch’s sonnets, which is similar to some of the conceits in “The Ecstasy,” but here, while Donne is not advocating them, there seem to be no traces of irony, which would disrupt his serious thought.

The argument of this poem is also similar to “The Ecstasy” in that it claims that the physical separation of bodies is not important for a love so “refin’d” as theirs (17), saying that since the lovers who are “Inter-assured of the mind, / Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss” (19-20). This stanza bears striking similarities to the crux of “The Ecstasy” in that the couple’s love is so complex and “refin’d” that they themselves “know not what it is” (18). Unlike “The Ecstasy,” though, this poem does not afterward argue the physical union. In this way, “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” argues ultimately for the precedence of the soul union over the body, but it does not completely discount the body – it says that they “care less” rather than “care not” for the physical aspects of love (20).

Obviously, “The Ecstasy” does not measure up to this level of seriousness in Donne’s repertoire. However, it is not as unrestrained as many of his elegies, making its wit somewhere in the middle ground between completely serious and complete wit. To illustrate, I will examine “Elegy 14,” commonly known as “Love’s Progress,” which is a poem with a similar theme as “The Ecstasy.” Like “The Ecstasy,” this elegy shows an Ovidian influence in the mind-body split. However, here, the speaker argues that love has one clear progression toward sex. He states:

Although we see celestial bodies move

Above the earth, the earth we till and love:

So we her airs contemplate, words and heart,

And virtues, but we love the centric part. (33-36)

In this, we can see the “progress” that love takes for the speaker toward the “centric” part, or the genitals. This speaker argues throughout the elegy that humans are bound to the body and thus our experiences are limited to sensual activities. Later in the poem, when describing his mistress as a sea journey, Donne again reiterates that “Where some do shipwreck, and no further get” at the navel when exploring his mistress’s body from face downwards (70), showing that it is foolish and wastes time to focus on mere beauty rather than physical love, challenging the Petrarchan ideal. Hadfield notes the influence Ovidian sexual energy and tension, which is exemplified here in Donne’s work. The thorough exploration of his mistress’s body shows Donne’s keen interest in it, which goes beyond even Ovid’s erotic poetry in its “daring” (52). This speaker again uses a comparison to the spheres with love as he states”

For as free spheres move faster far than can

Birds, whom the air resists, so may that man

Which goes this empty and ethereal way,

Than if at beauty’s elements he stay. (87-90)

Here it is clear that the speaker is arguing that any focus on the “ethereal” elements of love are merely a distraction from its true purpose, physical consummation of love brought about by “beauty,” which is the opposite of the first argument in “The Ecstasy,” but is similar to the final conclusion of the poem.

In this elegy, it is easy to become offended if one does not note the subtle clues that this poem is not to be taken seriously. These clues come in the argument of a trivial matter with fallacious reasoning. Similar to Donne’s dramatic poems of seduction, like “The Flea,” these poems argue something visibly untrue (i.e. Sharing blood in a flea is not the same as consummating physical love) that only a fool would believe. The outrageous assertions about women as only good for their beauty and the ridiculous comparison between exploring a mistress’s body and a difficult journey hint at Donne’s ironic tone in this poem.

However, while this elegy is over the top, it does shed insight into reading his later poem, “The Ecstasy.” For example, Donne’s continuous rejection of the Petrarchan idea of worshiping a female of supreme beauty from afar mirrors the rejection of a purely soul union in the later poem. He also asserts that to move “From her to hers is more adulterous / Than if he took her maid,” once again showing that physical love is more important than loving a person’s virtues. Obviously, since this poem tends toward the outrageous in its arguments, a blending of these views with his serious works like “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is needed to get a more accurate view of what Donne may have wanted to convey in “The Ecstasy.”

From this, it should be clear that “The Ecstasy” is neither a poem of absolute seriousness and reverence toward the subject, but it is also not an over-the-top farce rejecting Platonic ideals like “Love’s Progress.” Since its level is somewhere in the middle ground, it can be assumed that, while presented in a mildly joking tone, it also includes grains of truth. “The Ecstasy” itself then, is a complex mixture of this jest and seriousness about the nature of love and the interaction between souls and bodies in love.

Although the argument is not all-important to the effect of “The Ecstasy,” it does play a key role as the tenor of the poem. The tenor of the poem, as I mentioned, does not match the more sensuous vehicle, and this mismatch takes on a symbolic role in the poem. Like the vehicle and tenor, the body and soul of the lovers in the poem are interdependent despite their differences. It is through the interaction of the two that true meaning is made, and neither would function effectively without the other. While for modern readers “ecstasy” is used most to refer to great happiness or excitement and is often linked to sexual pleasure, in Donne’s time it had another meaning that explains the dramatic scene in the poem. This “ecstasy” was literally the state of being “beside oneself,” which described “the rapture in which the body was supposed to become incapable of sensation while the soul was engaged in the contemplation of divine things” (OED, qtd. Norton, 100). Donne literalizes this state of ecstasy by describing the soul and body as physically separated in his poem.

To give a brief overview of the structure, while critics differ on exactly how many divisions there are, they each note three main shifts in thought. The first section, which consists of the first seven stanzas, is focused on the physical body. This section is full of sensual details that verge on sexual innuendo describing the couple’s physical state, with words like the “intergrafted hands” that were “all the means to make [them] one” (9, 10). Arthur Marotti, who focuses on reader response and autobiographical influences, notes that in this first section the tenor and vehicle begin to clash. Here, he says, Donne uses comic hyperboles in his comparisons that “undercut the seriousness of the ecstatic experience” (144) like the souls serving like military leaders and bodies lying silently like “sepulchral statues” (15-16, 18). He also notes the image of the twisting eye-beams as another case of mismatch as the “violent physicality jars against the refinement of the Petrarchan convention it exploits” (146). Michael McCanles, a new historicist critic, labels the tenor of the poem Neo-Platonist as related by the vehicle, which he calls Thomistic (60).

Marotti and Gardner also note the foiled expectation in this opening section. The first physical details of the opening with hands “cemented” with sweat and eyes locked suggest that a physical union is about to take place. However, when we see the souls were gone out “to advance their state” the action stops, and the couple is completely still, not even speaking by the fifth stanza (15). This unexpected turn also adds to the joking tone, since Donne seems to play with his readers and their expectations. The sixth and seventh stanzas also introduce a hypothetical (and hyperbolically pure) third party who “so by love refin’d” can understand the soul’s language and was “grown all mind” who would be purified by overhearing their conversation (21-28). The extreme purity adds to the ironic tone of this first section, and the third party also then alienates the reader, who then realizes his or her role as an outside observer like the third party, which Marotti and Thomason note.

After this section follows the five-stanza group detailing the soul-union. This section shows the souls separate from the body to discuss their relationship. The exaggerated purity of the lovers continues in this section. The opening stanza of the section shows the souls gaining insight over the nature of their ecstasy and union:

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. (29-32)

McCanles notes that this stanza shows that the “‘unperplexing’ of the body-soul composite breaks down this analogical union into its simple components so that each one can be dealt with separately” (71). Marotti explains that the lovers then see that beauty was not the “first mover,” and he notes that this causes Donne to “outplatonize the platonizers,” continuing the hyperbole of the first section (149). He also notes that the term “unperplex,” significantly also can refer to an “untying,” which emphasizes this separation of the soul and body in ecstasy.


“Viral” by Ashton Mayer

The last seven stanzas (13 through 19) argue for a return to the body and a synthesis of body and soul. As many critics have noted, in the thirteenth stanza, the argument for a Platonic separation of soul and body is rapidly unraveled, which also provides a clue that this argument is not to be taken completely seriously. As Marotti notes, after the argument comes to its conclusion,

[I]f we reflect critically upon what has taken place, we should be surprised to discover that the very situation the poem hypothesizes is, by the poem’s own logic, impossible. There can be no such thing as a purely spiritual love ecstasy, much less a conversation between two disembodied souls. If the lovers’ souls are helpless without using their more corporeal faculties, then the experience the poem describes could never have occurred. (153-154)

Because of this contradiction of the original argument, one can again assume that the first argument is not the be-all, end-all for the poem. Instead, the second argument, although it is built on a questionable foundation, is the focus and ultimate argument. Rather than a Platonic love of an idealized woman, the speaker argues that the physical parts of love are also necessary. The ultimate argument of the poem laid out in lines 49-68, then, becomes more serious than that which precedes it. Perhaps predictably, this is also where the debate over meaning becomes thicker. Many critics have disagreed over the meaning of these final stanzas and what should be taken from them. Marotti, in his reader response viewpoint sees the final stanzas as Donne’s attempt to convert the readers to his point of view, after having trapped them in their outsider position at the beginning of the poem.

Through the means of the body, then, “soul into the soul may flow” (59). The body, however, has its own desires, and because “such fingers need to knit / That subtle knot, which makes us man” (63-64), physical copulation is a necessary part of the ideal union of lovers. This knot, then, can be seen as the ultimate fusion between the body and soul as well as between the lovers as one.

The seventeenth stanza spells out the final argument, saying:

So must pure lovers’ souls descend T’affections, and to faculties Which sense may reach and apprehend, Else a great prince in prison lies. (65-68)

Here we see some key phrasing: Donne asserts that the pure souls must descend to the bodies, which only may be reached by sense. Like the rest of the poem, the phrase “great prince in prison” suggests some of the same hyperbole from earlier. While Graziani, an intertextual critic, asserts that it is the souls who are the princes who must descend to help the imprisoned body (135), I agree more with Marotti’s view of a reversal here. This phrase, he says, shows a reversal from previously in the poem and from common Platonic beliefs. Rather than showing the souls as trapped within an earthly body, Donne’s speaker asserts that when souls are out of their bodies, they are trapped, as they do not have the abilities to do anything or flow into one another without the help of their earthly bodies (59-60).

In the penultimate stanza comes what I believe is the most clear statement of Donne’s beliefs about love. Here the speaker asserts “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is his book” (71-72). Because of this, we see that bodies are essential for love but a connection in souls must also be made for love. This more serious stanza also seems to be devoid of the irony of previous sections, and, indeed, the last section as a whole is less hyperbolic and has less mismatch between vehicle and tenor: both the philosophy and word choices are serious, though not without some exception, like the somewhat over-the-top “great prince in prison” (65). In this stanza the speaker also asserts that other “weak men” could look on their love and learn from it, which is similar to assertions made in “The Canonization,” for one. The final stanza returns to the hypothetical third party, who, if he had heard the “dialogue of one” of the soul union, would “see / Small change when [they’re] to bodies gone.” (75-76). This again makes the reader remember their outsider position, and ultimately, it is up to the readers to decide what “small change,” if any will occur in the couple. So what can a reader make of this argument? As I’ve noted, it cannot be completely serious, but where does the balance between jest and earnest lie? I believe that the speaker does believe in the importance of a soul union; he is not advocating for solely sexual relations as in “Love’s Progress.” Instead, if we take Marotti’s work with Donne’s autobiography seriously, we can assume that, since it was likely written after Donne’s clandestine marriage resulted in children, it could be a defense of his marriage and physical love as better than a removed, Platonic or Petrarchan lover. Bodies are ultimately essential to the ecstasy Donne describes, since the entire argument crumbles without them. Like many of his poems that show a third party observing a love union (“Air and Angels” and “The Canonization,” etc.), the poem also asserts that the love between the speaker and his mistress could serve as an example for other lovers and are capable of having a total union even when they are “to bodies gone” (76). These final lines suggest that, not only can the couple have a pure relationship involving souls and bodies, but also that the physical love they share does not show much change to an outsider, emphasizing the idea that love is something that does not affect the outside world, much like in Donne’s “The Sun Rising.”

Ultimately “The Ecstasy” is indeed an argument to return to the body; however, it is up to the reader to determine how seriously this should be taken. By comparing the tone to a very serious example and one that is more obviously an exercise of wit with similar metaphors, one can situate this particular poem on the continuum between the opposite extremes. In doing so, I have determined that the poem is neither serious nor entirely joking, and thus should be examined with a critical eye, although a certain level of ambiguity will remain. Furthermore, the interaction and mismatch between the vehicle and tenor contribute to this ambiguity but also mirror the relationship between body and soul, which make this poem one of Donne’s masterworks with its balance of subtlety and characteristic wit.

Considering the balances between jest and earnest, vehicle and tenor, religious and profane, and between soul and body are important in this interesting examination of human love. Likewise, the interaction between the elements of each pair, though they each have irreconcilable differences, is essential in constructing a more accurate understanding of this much-discussed poem. Unfortunately, while most readers accept that soul and body cannot really be separated, they often try to ignore Donne’s wit in favor of the poem’s seriousness, which undoes the “subtle knot” that makes Donne’s poems great.

Works Cited

Bell, Ilona. “Gender Matters: the women in Donne’s poems.” The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 201-216. Print.

Cruttwell, Patrick. “The Love Poetry of John Donne: Pedantique Wedes or Fresh Invention?” John Donne’s Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. Ed. Donald R. Dickson. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007. 326-331. Print.

Donne, John. “The Ecstasy,” “Elegy 14: Love’s Progress,” “Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” John Donne’s Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. Ed. Donald R. Dickson. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007. 100-02, 41-44, 71-72. Print.

Gardner, Helen. “The Argument About ‘The Ecstasy’” Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne’s Poetry. Ed. John Richard. Roberts. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1975. 239-58. Print.

Graziani, René. “John Donne’s ‘The Extasie’ And Ecstasy.” The Review of English Studies 19.74 (1968): 121-36. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.

Hadfield, Andrew. “Literary contexts: predecessors and contemporaries.” The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 49-64. Print.

Leishman, J. B. The Monarch of Wit; an Analytical and Comparative Study of the Poetry of John Donne. London: Hutchinson, 1965. Print.

Magnusson, Lynne. “Donne’s language: the conditions of communication.” The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 180-200. Print.

Marotti, Arthur F. “Donne and ‘The Extasie’” The Rhetoric of Renaissance Poetry: from Wyatt to Milton. Ed. Thomas O. Sloan and Raymond B. Waddington. Berkeley: University of California, 1974. 140-73. Print.

McCanles, Michael. “Distinguish in Order to Unite: Donne’s ‘The Extasie’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6.1 (1966): 59-75. JSTOR. Web. 13 Apr. 2011.

Mitchell, Charles. “Donne’s ‘The Extasie’: Love’s Sublime Knot.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 8.1 (1968): 91-101. JSTOR. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

Thomason, T. Katharine. “Plotinian Metaphysics and Donne’s ‘Extasie’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 22.1 (1982): 91-105. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.