Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies

By Frank Percy Wilson | Go to book overview

The Argument about 'The Ecstasy'

HELEN GARDNER.

WHENEVER opinion is sharply divided on a question it is worth asking what the opponents are agreed upon. This will usually show what are the genuine grounds of dis­ agreement and narrow the dispute to particular points. But some­ times such an inquiry has a more interesting result. It may show that the opponents are arguing from a common position which is itself false; and correction of this common basic misconception may make it possible to put forward a new view which can take into account elements in the opposing views which had appeared irrecon­ cilable. The dispute over the significance of 'The Ecstasy' is, I think, a case m point. There is no short poem of comparable merit over which such completely divergent views have been expressed, and no lover of Donne's poetry can be happy to leave the question in its present state of deadlock. For it is obvious that those who assert that the poem is the supreme expression of Donne's 'philosophy of love' and those who declare that it is a quasi-dramatic piece of special pleading have now no hope of converting each other. The one side merely adduces fresh parallels from various Italian Neo­ Platonists and from Donne's own works; the other continues to insist on the sexual overtones of the imagery and to point out sophistries in the argument. Neither side will recognize that there are elements in the poem which contradict its interpretation.

To Coleridge 'The Ecstasy' was the quintessential 'metaphysical poem': 'I should never find fault with metaphysical poems', he wrote, 'were they all like this, or but half as excellent',1 And to a poet-critic of our own day, Ezra Pound, it is equally, beyond ques­ tion, a great 'metaphysical poem' in the truest sense. After printing the poem in his ABC of Reading, he commented: 'Platonism believed. The decadence of trying to make pretty speeches and of hunting for something to say temporarily checked. Absolute belief in the existence of an extra-corporal soul, and of its incarnation, Donne stating a thesis in precise and even technical terms'2 But among

____________________
1
Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 1936, p. 138.
2
ABC of Reading, 1934, p. 126.

-279-

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