Academic Writing

Spirituality and Physicality in John Donne's "The Flea" and "The Ecstasy"

Though timeless in its reputation, John Donne’s poetry is very distinctly a product of the Renaissance era in which he was writing. The conceits he employs and the arguments he puts forth reflect Donne’s own reflections on his environment, especially his religious environment. Renowned for the apparent duality in his poetic persona, Donne’s Songs and Sonnets exemplify both his sexual and religious treatises, and, in many cases, encompass the two in one poem. The poems “The Flea” and “The Ecstasy” are variations on Donne’s theme of seduction poems, wherein he attempts to persuade a woman to have sex with him. In these poems, Donne presents elevated spiritual arguments as justification for physicality; in fact, he suggests that physical love is an essential component of an ideal relationship. Though the poems differ in structure and rhetoric, Donne defends his views on sexuality through religious and philosophical conceits in “The Flea” and “The Ecstasy,” mapping a cohesive pattern to a varying poetic persona.

Though both poems propagate the worship of physicality, “The Flea” is a tool of seduction while “The Ecstasy” is an expansion of the Platonic concept of love. Additionally, Donne relies on philosophical and contemporary notions of souls in the rhetoric of “The Ecstasy,” but he relies almost solely on a religious argument in “The Flea.” The primary tenet of “The Flea” draws on the contemporary erotic image of a flea having sucked blood from both lovers; thus, as they are already physically united, sex is the logical next step to truly consummate their relationship. The specific issue at play here is the idea of premarital sex and loss of virginity, as the speaker says in the first stanza, “Thou know’st that this cannot be said / A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead”, and mentions marriage in the second. Donne adds a layer of religion to this conceit, arguing that to kill the flea would encompass three sins: “Though use make you apt to kill me, / Let not to that, self-murder added be, / And sacrilege, three sins in killing three”, describing murder, suicide, and sacrilege in the destruction of the flea, here denoted as a sacred object. The flea becomes a sacred object because it seems to fulfill the lovers’ own personal “Holy Trinity.” Instead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three distinct entities that simultaneously exist as one, Donne’s trinity in “The Flea” is the two lovers and the flea united. Furthermore, the flea is sacred as it is a substitute for marriage, which is the traditional prerequisite for sex, and marriage, as an institutional example of religious love, is a sacred contract with God. The poem is full of religious imagery, such as when the speaker describes the bed as a “temple” in which the lovers are “cloistered”. In the end, the poem’s speaker is unsuccessful in persuading the woman to have sex with him, as she kills the flea in the third stanza. However, the poem still illustrates Donne’s more radical approach to sexuality by using a religion and conceits as a tool of seduction.

By contrast, “The Ecstasy,” though arguably still a form of seduction poetry, mainly focuses on defining ideal true love as having both spiritual and physical components. The first stanza of “The Ecstasy” makes clear that despite the image of two lovers resting on a riverbank, Donne is talking about sex. Describing the bank, Donne writes, “like a pillow on a bed, / A pregnant bank swelled up to rest”, invoking the image of two lovers in bed instead of by a river. In fact, the title itself contains a double meaning of both ecstasy in sexual climax and from the Greek root meaning a movement of the soul outside of the body. Donne’s primary focus, however, is the intertwining of the lovers’ souls, which is only made possible by their physical joining. Immediately upon the joining of their hands, “Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread / Our eyes upon one double string”, introducing one of the central conceits of the poem, which takes the contemporary belief of sight as light shining out of one’s eyes as representative of the lovers’ souls. Throughout the poem, Donne describes the souls’ external existence from the body as “Love these mixed souls doth mix again, / And makes both one, each this and that”, cohering to the Platonic concept of true love, which is solely spiritual and removed from the physical world. However, Donne also cements this spiritual, soul-love in the lovers’ physical bodies. The description of the violet in the middle of the poem calls back to the natural setting of the first stanza, preceding a rhetorical shift in the thirteenth stanza, after which Donne makes a case for bodily love as well, asking, “But O alas, so long, so far / Our bodies why do we forbear?” While “The Flea” is a nearly purely physical argument, “The Ecstasy” makes both a spiritual and physical claim, consequently altering the structure and content of the individual poems.

Both “The Flea” and “The Ecstasy” have relatively simple structures in comparison to some of Donne’s other poetry, though “The Ecstasy” more so. “The Ecstasy” is composed of 19 alternate rhyming quatrains in iambic tetrameter. Though appearing simple, the effect of such consistency is a pointed and coherent argument. Each quatrain presents a separate piece of evidence for Donne’s argument that sex and physical love are essential to achieve the spiritual love he describes throughout the poem. Indeed, the strict adherence to form and meter indicate Donne’s poetic skill, while the simplistic rhyme and diction seem to create an easily comprehensible argument. The repetition of key words such as “soul,” “body,” and “love” make the poem seem almost hypnotic, such that the poem’s audience has nearly no choice but to agree with Donne’s premise. By contrast, “The Flea” exhibits a greater structural complexity, more emblematic of the rest of Donne’s poems. Each of the three stanzas in “The Flea” contains three rhyming couplets and ends in a triplet. The lines consistently alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter, except for the last two lines of each stanza, which are both iambic pentameter. “The Flea” uses a more complex structure that evidences the speaker’s purposeful, constructed persuasion for a woman to have sex with him. Simultaneously, the elevated form seems a misdirection from the less profound argument of the poem. The poem’s structure also reflects the religious motif in its use of triads, for as well as having three stanzas, the triplets reflect the central point of argument in each stanza. These triads, in addition to the perpetuated religious argument, recall the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. Each stanza encompasses a distinctly separate part of the speaker’s argument. The first sets the scene of the flea and introduces the speaker’s plea to his lover, in the second he asks her to refrain from killing the flea, and the third encompasses his condemnation of her killing the flea. While the simpler structure of “The Ecstasy” hides a complex spiritual argument, “The Flea” seems to use elevated form and diction to cover its base seduction attempt.

Like Donne’s other poetry, “The Flea” and “The Ecstasy” use conceits and beliefs common in the early seventeenth century as rhetorical devices to further their arguments. One device present in both poems is the idea of a microcosm. In “The Flea,” the flea’s bite transforms the lovers’ bed into their whole world, as they are “cloistered in these living walls of jet”. Furthermore, the flea becomes a microcosm of the lovers’ relationship, as it comprises each individual as well as their relationship together. A similar concept is employed in “The Ecstasy,” when the lovers’ souls become one; the speaker describes the phenomenon as “When love with one another so interinanimates two souls”. Donne expands this concept by drawing on the concept of the Ptolemaic universe, which suggests that each planet revolves in a sphere around the earth, each of which is controlled by an intelligence. Reintroducing the lovers’ bodies into the poem, Donne writes, “we are / The intelligences, they the sphere”, indicating that the true personas of the lovers, residing in their souls, preside over the “sphere” of their bodies. Thus, the lovers’ relationship here encompasses the entire Ptolemaic universe, and, importantly, their bodies are conjoined and only occupy one sphere together. Though unfamiliar to casual readers in the modern era, such reference would be obvious to the courtly patrons for which Donne was writing. Further evidence of such temporal reference exists in the perpetuation of alchemical diction throughout the poem. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, alchemy was still a discussed subject, though beginning to fade out in favor of chemistry. However, the idea that base materials could be combined and refined to create pure gold was envied by many in the era, and Donne used this concept frequently in his poetry. In “The Ecstasy,” especially, Donne compares the two lovers to base materials, which, when mixed, “Might thence a new concoction take, / And part far purer than he came”. Alchemical references are scattered throughout the poem, as in “love refined” and “mixed souls”. The preponderance of multiple conceits and rhetorical devices makes sense in the context of “The Ecstasy,” as it makes a spiritual and philosophical argument, contradicting the widely accepted Platonic ideal of love. “The Flea,” by comparison, contains a simpler, singular argument, and as such relies solely on the conceit of the flea intermingling the lovers’ blood.

Examples of John Donne’s attempts at seduction through poetry are prevalent in his works, yet they offer more than just evidence of his sexual nature. In fact, both “The Flea” and “The Ecstasy” demonstrate Donne’s religious and philosophical beliefs, despite their use as persuasive devices. Both poems demonstrate how Donne promotes the importance of physical, corporeal love in conjunction with spiritual love. “The Flea” holds the physical joining of lovers against the religious institution of marriage, while “The Ecstasy” suggests that spiritual love between souls is impossible without joining of the bodies. Simplistic structures hide evident construction of arguments in both poems, especially with the contradiction of the quatrains of “The Ecstasy” and its substantial philosophical claim. Furthermore, Donne exhibits his poetic capabilities in the compact structure of “The Flea,” which uses triads to reinforce key points as well as the religious motif of the poem. Essentially, Donne’s poems are temporally emblematic, as he uses conceits and beliefs central to the English in the early seventeenth century. The duality of Donne’s intensely specific conceits intertwined with his larger spiritual arguments speaks to the poet’s own varying nature, but in these poems, as well as many of his others, Donne skillfully encompasses his entirety.

EnglishSarah Burk