Discuss the ways in which Donne uses imagery to convey one or more kinds of love.
Imagery is one of the most essential and powerful tools at a poet’s disposal; a poem arguably cannot exist without it. The best poets are able to take a seemingly trivial image and extract one or many of its aspects to effectively highlight the themes of a poem. John Donne is one of them. Donne specializes in metaphysical poetry, a genre which emotionally discusses complex themes such as existence and love through elaborate imagery and conceits. In “The Flea”, Donne uses nothing but the simple image of a flea and its killing to argue against the prohibition of premarital sex. In “The Ecstasy”, Donne uses a wide variety of images to explore the relationship between the physical and spiritual levels of romantic love. Regardless of the number of images or the themes he deals with, Donne is masterful in his application of imagery, and is able to convey his feelings about love with emotion, with power, and with style.
“The Flea” is a prime example of how Donne is able to take the most banal of images — a flying, flickering flea — and transform it into his central tool in storytelling and the delivery of his argument for premarital sex. Donne is, perhaps, aware of the commonplaceness of his eponymous image, and therefore, exploits this trait of the flea. Not only does the flea act as an extended metaphor for premarital sex, its unimportance reflects the ordinariness of premarital sex. Despite the briefness of the poem, the flea goes on a fully-fledged, three-part journey. In the first stanza, Donne uses the bloodsucking abilities of the flea to describe the act of sexual intercourse. Since the flea sucked both Donne and his lover’s blood, the “two bloods [mingle]” (line 4), and Donne immediately moves to state his point that this mingle, much like premarital sex, “cannot be said / a sin” (lines 5 to 6). Moreover, Donne notably refrains from making sexually explicit descriptions, and thus, leaves it to the reader’s imagination. While the “pampered swells” of the flea (line 8) undoubtedly and cleverly implies an erection, the refusal to delve too much into graphic descriptions of sex succeeds in making his imagery consistent. After the inciting incident, conflict arises in the second stanza, as Donne’s lover ponders whether to
kill the flea or not. Donne spends most of this stanza to talk about how the flea now contains three lives — Donne’s, his lover’s, and the flea’s. This alludes to the act of sexual intercourse involving three lives — the male’s, the female’s, and the potential offspring’s. Since killing the flea is “self-murder” (line 17) and “sacrilege” (line 18), Donne suggests that the prohibition of premarital sex is just as unethical and unholy. Finally, in the third stanza, the lover kills the flea, and the flea’s story comes to an end. Donne wastes no time to depict this. Instead, he opens the stanza by powerfully questioning, “Cruel and sudden, hast thou since / Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?” (lines 19-20) Donne condemns his lover’s actions and warns that the killing of the flea is no less sinful than having premarital sex. In this poem, Donne’s skillfulness in using imagery shines in three ways. Firstly, he takes a matter as everyday as the flying and killing of a flea and uses it to strongly criticize the forbidding of premarital sex. Secondly, Donne breathes life into the flea by giving it a short yet complete story, and thus, successfully evokes the reader’s sympathy for the flea. Thirdly, Donne, through his careful construction of this image, avoids any obscene descriptions of sexual intercourse and maintains the class and elegance of himself and his work.
In contrast, the imagery of “The Ecstasy” is much less focused and more diverse, yet still effective and powerful. “The Ecstasy” deals with a central theme of love being a mixture of physical and spiritual levels. Donne once again stresses the importance of physicality, which enables soulful conversation, but also declares a preference for the spiritual — the physical is merely a means to the end. With a central theme as complicated as that, the imagery adds to its complexity, but also aids the reader in understanding the poem. The poem opens with a pastoral setting, with a special mention of a violet in line 3. Here, the violet is nothing noteworthy. Yet, when it reappears in line 37, the violet, with its “strength, [its] color, and [its] size / (All which before was poor and scant) / redoubles still, and multiplies”. (lines 38 to 40) The reason of this vigorous growth of the violet is due to the narrator’s new insight into the spiritual layer of love.
Now that the narrator understands love is not merely physical and involves the mixture of souls, the violet responds by growing with abundance, strength, and vibrance. Its fertility reflects how eye-opening the narrator’s awakening is. In this epic poem, other images don’t have the fortune of being revisited like the violet; however, their brief appearances are nonetheless striking, profound, and indicative of Donne’s state of mind. For example, the two parties in a romantic relationship are portrayed as “two equal armies” (line 13). As evidenced by the “uncertain victory” (line 14), the two equivalently strong armies reach a stalemate, and “our souls” are sent to “negotiate” (line 17). This battle image is indicative of the occasionally violent nature of love, and is also appreciative and respectful of both parties’ participance. During the negotiation, bodies lay “like sepulchral statues” (line 18), which is the first hint at the lesser importance of bodily contact, in the face of soulful exchange. Throughout the rest of the poem, images are sprinkled everywhere, but a particularly remarkable one is the “great prince in prison” (line 68). Soulful connection is the prince, and without physical attraction, it is merely in prison, devoid of its ability to exercise authority. The prince shows how much Donne values the soul. The alliteration and internal rhyme literally portray an enclosed environment. This image, positioned at the climax of the poem, stands out from the rest by being brief and concise yet clear in its message and impressive in its style. Images abound in “The Ecstasy”, and there are many more left unmentioned. Their brevity is not detrimental; they all act as tips of the iceberg, are explanatory or suggestive of profound ideas, and contribute to Donne’s ambitious vision.
The biggest contrast between the uses of imagery of the two poems lies in the number of images. “The Flea” is centered on its eponymous object, exploits and explores almost every aspect of it. It crafts a storyline for the flea to go through. However, “The Ecstasy” is never centered on one image. It chooses to travel around images without stopping at all. “The Flea” shows a poet who is very determined and confident in following one approach. “The Ecstasy” follows a poet’s restless stream of consciousness. These two wildly different approaches bring
out vastly different effects. “The Flea”, with the depth given to the development of the character of the flea, makes the reader feel for the flea’s fate at the end of the poem. It successfully invokes an emotional response from the reader and makes the reader emotionally understand Donne’s questioning at the end. Through this single-minded approach of employing imagery, Donne makes his anger and frustration resonate with readers. “The Ecstasy” makes the reader overwhelmed. The poem depicts love as a complex, multi-faceted, almost incomprehensible (the souls’ language is not to be understood by mere mortals) concept. It makes people bewildered. Similarly, due to the endless supply of images thrown at the reader, the reader also feels, at least initially, confused and stunned by the verbal intricacy of the poem. This approach makes the reader understand Donne’s difficulty at understanding love, which parallels the reader’s difficulty at understanding the poem. It is a firsthand emulation of Donne’s experiences, an experience between the poet and the reader that feels oddly intimate. When the reader, after careful consideration, finally understands the poem’s meaning, the effect will be one not only of emotional catharsis, but also of intellectual cognizance. A comparison between the usages of imagery of the two poems truly shows how great of a poet Donne is and how skillful he is with words and verses.
In conclusion, in the discussion of the physical embodiment of love — sexual intercourse — in “The Flea”, Donne treats the subject of a flea delicately. He carefully designs a story for the flea to allow the reader to grasp Donne’s stance on premarital intercourse. The expression of his ideas is also clear and comprehensible. In contrast, in the exploration of the spiritual level of love in “The Ecstasy”, Donne embeds numerous images to enrich his poem. While each of the images explains a small component of his ideas, it is the combination of all of them — the entire framework of the poem — that makes the reader apprehend Donne’s thought processes. Both poems have rich and profound philosophical ideas and are enabled and embellished by Donne’s masterful use of imagery.