It is a complex and metaphysical poem dealing with the twin aspects of love—physical and spiritual. Some critics like Legouis find in it a plan for seduction with emphasis on the physical nature of love, while others like Helen Gardner find in it an affirmation of spiritual love. In fact, it deals with the relationship of the body and the soul in love.
What is ‘extasie’?
‘Extasie’ is essentially a religous 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 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.
DEVELOPMENT OF THOUGHT
The physical setting
The first stanza provides the physical setting of the two lovers. On the bank of a river over grown 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.
True nature of love
The communication of the souls of lovers reveals the true essence of love. Love is not 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’ which 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.
Is love physical or spiritual?
To this old and complex question, Donne has a satisfactory answer. 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 the 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.
The poet employs an unusual desire through ‘extasie’ which means ‘to stand out”. The souls of the poet and his beloved as it were, stand out of their respective bodies and hold a dialogue revealing the true nature of their love. In a religious ‘extasie’ the soul holds a communication with God. Here the conversation is not between the soul and God but between two souls. Donne has artistically explained the religious and philosophical belief to throw light on physical and sensuous love. The greatness of the poem lies in reconciling the opposites—physical love with spiritual love, metaphysical belief with the scientific, the abstract with the concrete, the human element with the non-human. The images and the conceits are carefully selected to support the poet’s views. The romantic setting in the beginning of the poem sets the mood of physical love—the violet flowers, the holding of hands and the cementing of the balms and the threading of the eye beams. The physical aspect of love must precede the spiritual union. Then comes the image of two armies and the soul acting as negotiator. Then, there are the images of the new soul—emanating out of the two souls — stronger and abler because it is made out of ‘atoms’. The inter-dependence of the body and the soul is expressed through metaphors. The souls are moving spirits, while the bodies are the ’sphere’ in which the ’intelligences’ move. Just as the stars and planets give rise to natural phenomena which affect the fortunes of human beings, in the same way the soul must find expression through the body. Just as the spirits of blood unite the physical and metaphysical in love, so souls express themselves through the five senses in the body. The image of the body as lovers, is very vivid and convincing.
The poet shifts quickly from the physical to the spiritual and therefore this poem has an edge over other metaphysical poems. The very fact that critics disagree about the objective of the poem—seduction or spiritual transport—shows the complexity and the diversity of possible interpretations. On the whole, the critics praise the poet for his excellent performance. Coleridge said: “I would never find fault with metaphysical poems, were they all like this (Extasie) or just half as excellent.” James Smith commended the poem in the following words: “Donne does not write about many things; he is content with the identity of lovers as lovers, and their diversity as the human beings in which love manifests itself, the stability and self sufficiency of love, contrasted with the mutability and dependence of human beings; with the presence of lovers to each other, their physical unity, though they are separated by travel and death, the spirit demanding the succour of the flesh hampering the spirit, the shortcoming of this life, summarised by decay and death, contrasted with the divine to which it aspires.”
For reconciling the dichotomy between the flesh and the sensuous and the sublime, particularly in this poem, Donne deserves credit.