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Jack’s Naughty Bits: John Donne, “The Ecstasy”

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Having always conceived of The Naughty Bits as a kind of intellectual smoke-break or literary petit four, I normally try to keep the excerpts bite-sized, toothsome and easy to digest. This week’s bit, however, requires a bit more chewing — but is well worth it. I have written before on the incomparable verbal complexity of John Donne’s poems, how they are like crafty trompes l’oeil that appear to be different things depending on how far away you are when you look at them. Donne is like a mad maze-builder, anticipating his reader’s movements, leading you down promising paths that quickly dead-end, turning you around, doubling you back, only to show you the secret exit where you least expected it. Apart from Shakespeare, no writer prior to Donne could so deftly construct and extinguish worlds with the break of each poetic line; nor has any writer matched him since.

    

The poem below is a prime example. It begins with an image that one is likely to take for sex: a violet resting its head upon a swollen pillow. But then Donne takes great pains to indicate that it’s not sex that he’s talking about; the violet is his head, the pillow her tummy and they are just sitting still, holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes all day! At which point he begins a lengthy discourse on the great refinement of this kind of non-sexual touching; it is, he contends, the true language that souls speak to one another.

    

This accounts for the first half of the poem, right up until he mentions the word violet again. The only problem is, beginning with the second mention, the violet is clearly no longer Donne’s higher head, but his nether one, getting larger, mingling with the other, and flowing. We are back to the penis, back to sex, which proves to be the yet truer language of souls. Sex is the subtle knot that makes us man; soul flows into soul in the act of sex.

    

But doesn’t this contradict the first half of the poem? What about the quiet hand-holding? The truth is, from the Middle Ages forward, the most sophisticated poets would occasionally create poems with two entirely separate and even contradictory meanings; these meanings weren’t supposed to invalidate each other, but to co-exist simultaneously in the mind of the reader. Not either/or, but both/and. The point of Donne’s poem is that there are indeed two violets, two heads, two ways for souls to converse: the quiet, gentle, delicate way your pastor would be proud of, and that other means we normally call humping.

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“The Ecstasy” 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

With a fast balm, which thence did spring;

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread

Our eyes upon one double string;

So to intergraft 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 refin’d

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 color, and the size,

(All which before was poor and scant)

Redoubles still, and multiplies.

When love with one another so

Interinanimates 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 compos’d and made,

For th’atomies of which we grow

Are souls whom no change can invade.

But oh alas, so long, so far,

Our bodies why do we forbear?

They are ours, though they are not we; we are

The 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;

So soul into the soul may flow,

Though it to body first repair.

As our blood labors 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

T’ 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 are to bodies gone.