Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A Comparison between John Donne's Aire and Angles and The Extasie

John Donne is a majestic poet of the Renaissance and has left a perpetual mark in the literary history of the English language. His uniquely sublime style of writing has given poetry an entirely new genre of the metaphysical. His love poetry and divine poetry are equally endearing and elevated. Donne has written a plethora of love poems in his lifetime. Aire and Angles and The Extasie are two of the best pieces of literature that he has composed. Both poems elucidate on the quality of supreme love as being both spiritual as well as physical. The matter and implications of both poems are somewhat the same, and yet the devices employed are poles apart. Both have the literary excellence of evoking not only the highest respect for the poet but also an unparalleled passion, the most peculiar and unique imagery and thought process, coupled with the amazement at the linguistic technique used.
Since Donne’s poetry has a sublime connotation to it, the love poems Aire and Angles and The Extasie both have titles that very efficaciously depict this elevation of thought. Air, although a worldly element is intangible and the purest of the four elements. Likewise, angels are heavenly beings and are also deemed to be very pure. The word ecstasy on the other hand immediately brings to mind the feeling of a heavenly, out of this world experience. It expresses heightened emotions of fulfilment and contentment of a body that assumes spiritual and transcendent proportions. According to J. Weemes[1], you experience ecstasy when “the servants of God were taken up in spirit, separate as it were from the body, that they might see some heavenly mystery revealed unto them.” Thus, these surreal and lofty impressions prepare the reader for a metaphysical experience that Donne is known for. Both titles also exude an aura of peace and harmony between the natural and the supernatural world.
Air and Angles is a short poem composed of two fourteen-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABBA BA CDCDD EEE. The second stanza has the same rhyme scheme, however, with a different rhyming pattern of FGGF GF HIHII AAA. All verses have eight to ten syllables except for the third verse in each stanza that has six syllables. The stanzas at times follow the iambic tetrameter and at other times iambic pentameter. On the other hand, The Extasie has a different structure. It has nineteen four-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABAB, CDCD, and so on. Almost all verses have eight syllables with a few having seven or nine. The stanzas are a series of iambic tetrameter. It is also one of Donne’s longest love poems.
Aire and Angles is addressed to the reader. The diction of Aire and Angles is both earthly as well as celestial as the title suggests. Terms such as “shapeless flame,” “Some lovely glorious nothing,” “nor in nothing, not in things” all deliver the worldly aspect of love while at the same time elevating it and making it metaphysical. On the other hand, The Extasie is a dramatic monologue. The whole poem is written as if in argument with the use of phrases such as “If any,” “We said,” “We see by this,” etc. The language used although simple, is very emotionally stimulating. Lines such asas yet was all the meanes to make us one,” and “And we said nothing, all the day” illustrate a very sentimental state.
The literary technique of enjambment is used in both poems. It means the carrying forward of the same sentence in the next line without the use of any punctuation. In Aire and Angles, this technique has been employed in the following lines among others:
“… so in a shapeless flame/Angles affect us oft…”
“Ev’ry thy hair for love to work upon/Is much too much…”
In The Extasie also, this technique is used in
“A Pregnant banke swel'd up, to rest/The violets reclining head”
along with other such instances. Otherwise, the use of commas, colons and semi-colons throughout both poems makes the poetry not only more exciting but also more comprehendible. It also helps in breaking down the different concepts of Donne into fragments so that the idea is step by step conveyed to the reader.
There is use of metaphor in The Extasie as well as in Aire and Angles. In The Extasie, the metaphor is found in the likening of the two lovers with “two equal armies.” Again, the metaphor of “a single violet transplant” is used to depict the amalgamation of the two souls of the lovers to form an entirely different and unique soul. There are many other metaphors also incorporated in the poem such as that of a book, alloy and celestial spheres. In Aire and Angles the metaphor of the parent child relationship is present to depict the inter-dependence of the soul and body. The purity of a man’s and a woman’s love is also portrayed through the metaphor of angels and air respectively. The metaphor of “love’s pinnace” is also used to describe the overwhelming nature of physical beauty of the beloved.
The Extasie is wrought with a spectacular barrage of imagery. The two main images inculcated by Donne are those of horticulture and military. The images related to horticulture depict the union of souls such as “to entregraft our hands,” and “violet transplant.” The military images are delineated by the use of such terms as “equal armies,” “uncertain victory,” “advance their state,” and “negotiate.” Other than these images, the use of tangible, earthly images of water, hands and perspiration are also used in the poem. In Aire and Angles also, there is use of imagery. The images of “limbs of flesh,” “lip, eye and brow,” “ballast,” “hair” and “angles, face and wings/Of air” all help form a vivid picture in the mind. There is also the nautical imagery used to create a beautiful picture of a ship sailing with “ballast love” that has the tendency to “sink admiration.”
Both poems that are under discussion deal with the significance of both spiritual as well as the physical love. Although the overall implication is the same, both deal with the subject in unique ways. Aire and Angles explains how the spiritual love cannot be without the physical one. It emphasizes upon the mutual dependence of both and the uselessness of spiritual love until it assumes a body. The Extasie on the other hand explains the different levels of love. According to Donne in this poem, the first level of love is inspired by the physical beauty. This elevates to the spiritual love until the last and final stage of love is reached. This is the rational love. The Extasie explains how love is actually a process and a progression towards a rationale. It includes both the body and the spirit which has been manifested through the reference of angels and books.
Both poems are anti-Platonic in content. The Platonic school of thought believes in the sacredness and elevation of love without any physical contact. The Extasie has sexual connotations in it and so does Aire and Angles. Sexual undertones in The Extasie are found in certain lines such as “pillow on a bed,” “Pregnant,” etc. Donne impresses upon the idea of incarnation and says that even “pure lovers soules” need to declare their love through the “affections” and “faculties” of the body because
Soe soule into the soule may flow,
Though it to body first repaire”
There is also a sexual invitation made at the end of the poem. In Aire and Angles, the reference to the physical aspect of love is made in,
Love must not be, but take a body too ,”
“I bid Love ask, and now
That it assume thy body, I allow,
And fix itself in thy lip, eye, and brow.”
While in Air and Angles, there is one conceit that is being carried on to describe the sacred union of lovers, in The Extasie, this concept has been supplanted via a number of conceits. In Aire and Angles, the conceit of air and angels along with that of the “ballast” and “love’s pinnace” is used. In The Extasie, Donne has used the conceit of violets, book, gold, armies, etc. All are produced to give a plethora of references and examples to substantiate his point. The conceit of angels is also present in this poem which makes it very similar to Aire and Angles.
With respect to the theme, both poems have been divided in a distinct way to become more effective. Aire and Angles has been thematically divided into two parts. The first stanza deals with the importance of the human form and the infusion of emotion in it. Hence, there is use of terms such as “limbs of flesh” and “parent.” The second stanza is unified with the first one through the mention of earthly knowledge and terms related to seafaring. However, it advances to a loftiness where love is not bound to the human body but is free like air and angels. The Extasie builds up gradually with the development of three ideas. The initial part of the poem deal with the physical attraction. The middle part of the poem explains how this physical love changes into spiritual love and the spirits are rendered one. The third part deals with the comprehension of love and the rationale of love.
The main theme of both poems is the transcendence of love from the natural to the supernatural. They impress upon the idea of physical love merely being the first step towards a spiritual love. Although one cannot be without the other, it is the spiritual love that is the ultimate kind of love. The idea of an intermediary stage is also prevalent in both poems. Aire and Angles talks about the angels assuming a body of air that makes a state between this world and the next. Likewise, in The Extasie the mixture of the souls and the creation of another soul is also a depiction of an intervening stage since, people at that time believed souls to be a mediator between the world that we live in and the Hereafter. The concept of spheres and each being ruled by an intelligence is also found in both poems.
Donne also elevates the love of men as being more pure compared to that of women in Aire and Angles. He likens the love of man with an angel in its purest form while the woman’s love is considered to be like an angel who has assumed a body of air and has thus, made it less pure. He says,
“Just such disparity
As is ‘twixt air and angels’ purity,
‘Twixt women’s love, and men’s, will ever be.”
However, in The Extasie, the love of a man and a woman are supposed to be equal. For a complete understanding of love, the emotion should be equal in both man and woman. This is depicted by the use of “equal armies” to refer to the lover and the beloved. They “negotiate” for their “states” on an equal footing with each other. Their passion is so similar in proportion that it is impossible that one side wins over the other. When the souls of the lover and beloved meet, they join to become a new entity. This new product is wholesome. It
“Interanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controules.”
Donne has incorporated the knowledge and beliefs of the contemporary world in both the poems. In Aire and Angles, the medieval concept of angels has been utilised. According to that belief, angels were God’s messengers and were thought to have the appearance of a winged human. It was also believed that they could assume a body of air in certain circumstances. This belief has been magnificently presented in the poem and Donne has used it optimally to serve his purpose. Likewise, in The Extasie, there are many scientific references. The use of certain words and phrases, such as “concoction,” “mixture of things,” “Atomies,” “alloy,” etc., point towards the development of that era and the prevalent knowledge of that time. Since, the concept of voyages and travel was also very popular at that time both poems contain nautical terminology or imagery as well.
The Extasie and Aire and Angles both are master pieces of Donne. Their depiction of love is unique yet the same. The employment of distinct conceits makes these love poems stand apart from each other. However, the thematic concerns draw them closer to each other. They have different structures while the diction is simple. The use of contemporary knowledge in the expression of ideas is apparent in both poems. Both the poems also stress upon the presence of both physical and spiritual aspect of love. Apart from all the similarities, Aire and Angles elevates the love of man more than that of a woman while in The Extasie, the love of both is required on an equal footing. Hence, both poems with their plenty of similarities and differences are nonetheless exquisite works of Donne.

[1] Reverend Dr. Renita J. Weems. Shorter Community A.M.E. Church Women’s Conference.

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