As 'twixt two equal armies, Fate
Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls, (which to advance their state, 15
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. 20
The "equal armies" analogy in the fourth and fifth stanzas of "The Ecstasy" is crucial, for it introduces the relationship between body and soul that dominates the rest of the poem. Moreover, as Helen Gardner has shown, the analogy is Donne's own, something he finds "for himself and not in his source," Leone Ebreo's Dialoghi d'Amore (297). Yet if this analogy is important to our understanding of the poem, it also is ambiguous-so ambiguous, in fact, that critics have been unable to agree even on such a basic matter as which figures in the simile Donne means to compare. Yvor Winters claims that Donne is likening the disembodied souls to two equal armies (184); Arthur Marotti counters that "[t]he bodies are the combatting armies, the souls the individual negotiators" (145). What links these competing views-and those of many other explicators of the analogy-is the assumption that Donne means the comparison to be clear, and that its ambiguity is therefore unintentional, the result either of conceptual confusion or of sloppy writing.
It seems a better strategy, given Donne's characteristic "high standard of metaphorical precision" (Stein II), to assume that Donne means what he says, that the analogy makes multiple connections among its different figures, and that the resulting ambiguity somehow serves Donne's design for the poem. For if we read the analogy as Donne wrote it, and not as we, for the sake of clarity, would like to rewrite it, we are forced to acknowledge the validity, the striking aptness, of all the connections that it implies. As Winters suggests, the analogy does link battling armies with motionless souls, but it also relates "her and me" to "equal armies" and "our souls" to "uncertain victory." The lovers, this second reading implies, are like two armies in that something conditional and beyond their control hangs between them: both pairs are objects of the preposition "'twixt." The souls, linked in negotiations, hovering between the lovers' bodies, resemble an undecided contest that Fate dangles between two wellmatched armies. Yet a third reading links Fate and the lovers' souls. The connection here does at first seem, in Gardner's words, "purely verbal" (295), a coupling produced by tortured syntax: 'As fate suspends uncertain victory between two equal armies, our souls hung between her and me." But Fate and the souls are indeed related, for they all are active agents, the only figures in the first five stanzas not presented as purely passive--a point I will return to presently. The analogy, then, contains multiple comparisons, each well home out by both the grammar and sense of the section. It is impossible to determine a single definitive reading, for all are equally legitimate. To admit this is not to deconstruct the poem, but to read its words faithfully.
Compounding this confusion is Donne's shifting description of the differences between the lovers' bodies and souls. Marotti has argued that "the fifth stanza contradicts the clear suggestions of the previous four as it brings physical (erotic) activity to a standstill" (147). Erotic undertones abound in the first four stanzas, but hand-holding and sweating hardly qualify as erotic, or even especially physical, activity. The lovers lie motionless and silent. In the first twenty lines, they are the subject of exactly three verbs; and these, "sat," "lay," and "said," only further emphasize their passivity. To this static setting the analogy introduces the souls as active participants in the ecstatic experience. Like aggressive armies, they "Were gone out" "to advance their state," to "negotiate" a settlement to their implied impasse. Later in the poem, however, the contrast between passive bodies and active souls undergoes a reversal; the bodies become necessary actors in human experience, the agents through which the lovers first gain knowledge of each other:
We owe them thanks, because they thus,
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their forces, sense, to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay. (53-56)
This shift resembles another reversal originating in the analogy, one in which the locus of the lovers' identity moves from their bodies to their souls. The analogy reveals that the speaker's consciousness is grounded firmly in the body. "Whilst our souls negotiate" he says, "we"-the lovers' bodies-"like sepulchral statues lay." And when he says that the couple's souls "hung 'twixt her, and me," "her" and "me" clearly refer to the physical husks that are reclining on the ground. In the analogy, then, the first-person pronouns strongly suggest that the lovers' selves reside in their bodies. Toward the end of the poem, however, the speaker contradicts his earlier statements:
But O alas, so long, so far
Our bodies why do we forbear!
They are ours, though they are not we.... (49-51)
"We" now clearly refers to the lovers' souls; the bodies are their possessions. The poem has reversed its former position: whereas it first led us to think of the lovers' bodies as their true selves, it now suggests exactly the opposite.
This ambiguity is crucial to "The Ecstasy," for it is Donne's way of eliding the customary distinction between body and soul, and hence of tightening "That subtle knot, which makes us man" (64). By creating multiple connections among its parts, by defining "we" first as the body, then as the soul, the analogy suggests that any division between the speaker's physical and spiritual selves is insignificant or illusory. This vision of human beings as mysteriously and wonderfully indivisible must have been profoundly important to Donne, who cherished the Christian doctrine of the body's resurrection and felt deeply troubled by the prospect of a soul's being eternally severed from its physical frame (Carey 203-04).
Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. London: Faber, 198 1.
Donne, John. "The Ecstasy." The Complete English Poems. Ed. A. J. Smith. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
Gardner, Helen. "The Argument About 'The Ecstasy"' Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies Presented to Frank Percy Wilson. Ed. Herbert Davis and Helen Gardner. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.279-306.
Marotti, Arthur F. "Donne and 'The Extasie."' The Rhetoric of Renaissance Poetry. Ed. Thomas O. Sloan and Raymond B. Waddington. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974. 140-73.
Stein, Arnold. John Donne's Lyrics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1962.
Winters, Yvor. Forms of Discovery. Denver: A. Swallow, 1957.
By STEPHEN FARMER, Mary Washington College