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Essay: Donne’s “The Ecstasy” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55”

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: June 8, 2021*
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  • Donne’s “The Ecstasy” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55”
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Literature is a vehicle of immortalization. It exists beyond the passage of time that the author, as a human being, is a mere subject to, yet it is too a physical medium that is often lost or destroyed. Authors toy with the concept of immortality in cementing the admiration of a speaker towards his beloved, in order for their love to withstand their physical deaths; however, this poses the complexity of representing immortality of the spiritual through temporal bodily experience. The Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries saw rejections of unattainable Petrarchan love, as can be read through Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55” and John Donne’s “The Ecstasy”, both of which immortalize love through rejections of beauty and virtue, presenting spiritual fulfillment through attainable bodily experiences. However, in relating physical and spiritual, there exists a paradox of everlasting in the image of physical decay.

Both Donne and Shakespeare use figures of unlikeness to uncertain ends, especially in looking at the image of stone, where Donne crafts “sepulchral statues” (18) as a metaphysical representation of the everlasting lovers yet also as a manifestation of physical death. Shakespeare further associates stone with decay against his assumed immortal written word, “this powerful rhyme” (2). Given Shakespeare’s assertion of immortalizing his young male lover through poetry against Donne’s connection of the bodily sexual experience to the spiritual, we may question whether the paradoxical metaphors of “Sonnet 55” seek to compensate for the unconventional male-to-male dedication. It remains unclear as to whether the nature of the relationship between the men in “Sonnet 55” is more-so a Platonic friendship or a homosexual admiration, given that the only reference to gender is Shakespeare’s comparison to “princes” in line 2. However, assuming either of the two, the male lovers, atypical of that century, cannot be immortalized through future generations as Donne associates to spiritual everlasting; therefore, Shakespeare must address their connection by assuring spiritual union in the face of physical decay, which is furthered by female temptation of the dark mistress in “Sonnet 126”.

In rejection to the unattainable lover of Petrarchism through his depiction of sexual union in “The Ecstasy”, Donne criticizes the Platonic lover, who traditionally presents love solely as the spiritual union of souls. Rather, Donne accords the necessity of sexual pleasure as preceding the union of souls, thereby showcasing the enjoyment of love in the present, as well as everlasting spiritual union. Yet, Donne’s association of the lovers in sexual union as “sepulchral statues” is especially peculiar. He begins with an image of the lovers together, describing their hands as “firmly cemented” (5), followed by a physical inaction to their union, as “All day the same our postures were, / And we said nothing all day (19-20). Donne’s deliberate choice in naming the poem “The Ecstasy” immediately relays the lovers’ union as an out-of-body experience, but yet as readers, we are faced with an image of the lovers becoming stone, signifying inactivity amidst a very active experience. The lovers are not the stone of “marble nor the guilded monuments” (1) that Shakespeare rejects in “Sonnet 55” either, but rather they are tomb statues. While spiritual union follows the lovers’ bodily sexual union, this immortality contrasts the image of decay in the sense that although they will be united into a single soul, their bodies which fulfill the function of necessary pleasure, will later become lifeless statues. The spiritual union of the lovers’ souls surpasses their bodily claims to necessary sexual pleasure; however, one entity cannot be separated from the other. If this spiritual union is not achieved, the physical does not account for the spiritual, as in Donne’s presentation of damnation to stone,

So must lovers’ soul ascend
T’affections, and to faculties
Which sense may reach and apprehend;
Else a great prince in prison lies. (65-68)

No matter the nobility of the lover, if bodily experience is sought solely for pleasure, it is a “prison” that the soul will not escape and achieve the everlasting, as in the temptations of the mistress on the male beloved in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 126”. By presenting the body as an image of God (72), it is a necessary vehicle towards immortality, which Shakespeare cannot achieve with his male lover; therefore, he seeks to immortalize him through his poetry.

Shakespeare poses the decay of stone against the immortality of his written word in “Sonnet 55”, which also serves as a rejection of ancient forms of everlasting as heroes and nobles are often immortalized through “gilded monuments” (Shakespeare 1). Yet, the most interesting facet is his description of the passage of time, “You shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time” (3-4). Just as Donne, Shakespeare poses the everlasting against the decay of a stone tomb, asserting his poetry against stone monuments or memorials that signify greatness after death, but too are subject to the destructiveness of time. However, the harshness of “sluttish time” (4) goes beyond the simple significance of dirtiness that wears down stone, but rather is a negative connotation of the immoral and destructive female gender. Shakespeare rejects any female temptation that may work against his male lover’s immortality. Whether the poem is a Platonic same-sex admiration or a romantic homosexual relationship, the speaker in Shakespeare’s sonnet is unable to achieve the sexual union that Donne necessitates. The description of “sluttish” may link to the following sonnets in his collection, such as “Sonnet 126”, which focuses on a dark, tempting mistress, that seeks to destroy Shakespeare’s honorable love for his male beloved. The mistress desires the lover for pleasure, with the male beloved as a “minion of her pleasure” (9), and the mistress’ self-centered goal, “Her audit (though delayed) answered must be, / And her quietus is to render thee” (11-12). In centering on Donne’s argument of sexual pleasure of the body in ascension to the union of the soul, the pleasure desired by the mistress is immoral and sinful as it disregards the spirituality of the physical; therefore, it is little more than a decaying stone tomb.

It is paradoxical and even comical that Shakespeare so confidently asserts that his immortalization of his beloved through poetry will still persist,

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity (5-8)

He poses poetry as stronger then stone, fire, and war, despite the physicality of the written word that too may be lost among those elements following the bodily death of the speaker. As stone is a representation of loss and decay, there is also a significant differing in the active being of the lover in contrast to the descriptions that give way “to the ending doom” (12). The lover “shall outlive this powerful rhyme” (2) and Shakespeare ends the sonnet in an assertion of the lover inhabiting his body, “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” (14). A certain insecurity is felt in the sonnet’s persistence to convince, as it relies on the imperative voice through the repetition of its dominant verb “shall” six times throughout the poem, in lines including, “Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find more / Even in the eyes of all posterity” (10-11). Shakespeare is intent on the repetition both of the verb “shall” and the continuity of “live” to reassure the immortality of his lover; yet, this is more-so a reassurance for himself than for the reader, as we can recognize that poetry too can be destroyed as is stone.

Through applying Donne’s assertion of the lovers’ bodies being cemented into a stone tomb following their sexual union and the ascension of their souls to Shakespeare’s assertion of his love outliving the decay of stone statues of previous greats, there lies the question as to whether Shakespeare seeks to immortalize his male lover through his written word due to the reality that he and his lover will not have generations together that outlive them. Therefore, he lacks a necessary bodily experience that Donne immediately ties to spiritual immortality. From the first stanza of Donne’s description of them resting upon a river bed, there is a tone in which he already sees his lover bearing his unborn children, as he writes, “Where, like a pillow on a bed, / A pregnant bank swelled up to rest” (Donne 1-2). In describing nature as “pregnant”, he transposes this image onto his lover, who he envisions his immortality in, both as a union of souls and the continuation of his lineage after their own bodies become nothing but “sepulchral statues”. Before even having sex with his lover, Donne recounts that, “And pictures in our eyes to get/ Was all our propagation” (11-12). We can relate “propagation” to sexual reproduction, but also as “propagating” an idea. Their immortality is therefore already cemented through the products of their bodily union, both through the physical reproduction of their future generation and the spiritual theory that the bodily is the prerequisite to the immortality of their united souls.

In holding with the idea that Shakespeare cannot achieve that bodily union with his male beloved, he maintains that through immortalizing him in poetry, “[his] praise shall find room / Even in the eyes if all posterity” (10-11). These lines may be interpreted both in terms of Shakespeare’s beloved’s immortality being assured despite their love not permitting the physical reproduction of a future generation, as well as his memory being assured to withstand the change of time and passage of other generations outside of theirs. Along with his voice of command in the structural and grammatical form of his lines, Shakespeare’s voice although confident, balances on a line, where one reading promotes the certainty of undying admiration while another fears not fulfilling the bodily experience that Donne asserts leads to spiritual union. Shakespeare’s immortalization of his beloved apprehends the idea that the human body is eventually nothing but a decaying tomb stone that is worn out and destroyed with time. This destruction is furthered by female sexual temptation, as in the dark mistress’ luring of the beloved for her own pleasure in “Sonnet 128”, thereby withstanding immortal spiritual union.

In observing the shift of tone that occurred in love poetry of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries against the unattainability of the Petrarchan lovers, writers including Shakespeare and Donne sought new ways to express the spiritual through attainable and realistic bodily experiences. Both Donne’s “The Ecstasy” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55” explore the paradox of immortalizing love against the image of decaying stone tombs. Yet while Donne asserts that the bodily pleasure of sexual union precedes the spiritual union of souls, Shakespeare seeks to immortalize his male beloved through his poetry as an everlasting medium. Although as readers, we may understand poetry too as a perishable medium just as stone, Shakespeare’s attempt of immortalization expresses uncertainty, both through his metaphorical comparison to outlasting stone and his assertive grammatical structure, as he cannot achieve the bodily union that precedes the immortality of the soul that Donne defends a century later. The dark mistress in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 126” acts as the destructive force wearing down the stone, as her luring the beloved for sexual pleasure too disregards the inseparability of the bodily and spiritual of Donne’s “The Ecstasy”, where sexual pleasure can only exist in recognition to spiritual everlasting. The union of the bodily and spiritual through figures of unlikeliness is not only a way of immortalizing love towards a specific beloved, but rather it is both an answer and question of literature as to the human desire for continuity and recognition beyond unavoidable physical death.

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