Erotic Spirituality: The Integrative Tradition from Leone Ebreo to John Donne

By T. Anthony Perry | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
John Donne's Philosophy of Love in "The Ecstasy"

Donne's Platonism

As an approach to Donne's Platonism I shall offer two propositions that, while not limited to Platonists, were strongly endorsed by such authors as Plotinus and Ficino. According to the first, the human soul, due to its mixed nature, acts as an intermediary between spirit and matter or body and may turn in either direction. To turn toward the former is to contemplate, to turn toward the body is to do--a distinction that Donne affirms in such poems as "Love's Growth" and "Air and Angels." A second proposition has to do with the object of contemplation. A lady can be perceived through three aspects: her physical beauty, her interior beauty or virtue, and her mind. Contemplation--as opposed to doing but as necessarily engaging the emotions as well as the intellect--can be focused on any level, but Neoplatonic preference weighed heavily on mental and moral aspects and viewed the aesthetic level as but a first step toward a purely inner contemplation of the image of the beloved. At these levels of the psyche and once the beloved's physical and even imagined presence has been abstracted, the lover can focus on characteristics deeper than aesthetic ones, can conceive the beloved's virtue and even her mind, can glimpse, finally, his own ideal, integrated image, what Serve calls "his highest potentiality" (Délie 144).

On the evidence of the poems, "The Undertaking" sets the tone but not the limits of Donne's Platonizing: 1

But he who loveliness within
Hath found, all outward loathes. [Vv. 13-14]

If, as I have, you also do
Virtue attired in woman see . . . [Vv. 17-18]

It is noteworthy that Donne undercuts his Platonic love by the even nobler imperative, dictated by a sense of the supreme value of love's doctrine, to "keep that hid" (v. 28). Of course, silence is only one way of keeping that

-89-

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