Spiritual and Emotional Gratification in “Ecstasy” by Hayden Carruth

The poem “Ecstasy” by Hayden Carruth keeps with the emotional tempo of the universal themes of love, spiritual awareness, longing, wonder and awakening portrayed in Roger Housden’s collection of Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime. He advances the idea that to be truly human is to be at peace with self and nature. It is during this moment of intense spiritual awareness, so intense like the tingling sensations of orgasmic pleasure, that one experiences the full weight of emotional and spiritual gratification.

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Carruth begins by saying that he thought sexual ecstasy was the only moment during which one can experience gratification. He thought it was the moment when all human feelings united to gratify one emotionally and spiritually. This is suggested when he says that sex was the briefest of moments when a person was transported “out of oneself” (5). The idea of transporting a person out of oneself suggests a state of complete obsession that makes one “dead” to the physical world. It is a moment that numbs the mind to the present and arouses imagination of sweet music “that lasted longer and filled me with the exquisite wrenching agony of the blues” (7-9). These lines hint at love, indicating that sex symbolized that moment when the speaker felt close and connected to his or her lover. The reference to losing oneself in music suggests throwing all caution away and conscious awareness that makes one exercise restraint. The term ecstasy is, therefore, a metaphor that symbolizes a moment of complete unconsciousness about the reality. Ecstasy refers to a mental state of absolute euphoria, usually as a result of experiencing a spiritual or emotional trance-like state. Accordingly, the speaker likens sexual ecstasy to the moment when a person experiences complete peace by being unconscious to the harsh realities of the physical world. The reference to imaginary music signifies the complete transportation into the spiritual world, where one’s feelings, emotions and spirit are at peace.

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However, the speaker realizes much later in life, perhaps after the death of his lover, that sexual pleasure is not the true embodiment of gratification. This is because the speaker can still feel the same feelings of ecstasy while seated the “broken chair that cats have shredded” (11-12). Therefore, he suggests that there is another source of gratification other than sexual pleasure. Moreover, the use of the terms “broken” and “shredded” in the same sentence suggests a disruption of his previous life. It could be a break up with his lover, divorce or death of a partner. It is possible, therefore, that the speaker is nursing a broken heart. Regardless, he could still experience the same transitory (temporary) gratification he used to experience in sex.

In light of Roger Housden’s interpretation of the poem in terms of spiritual and emotional contentment, the source of the speaker’s gratification is not tied with the physical world. The speaker’s reference to what he feels as ‘obscure” add to its mystery, suggesting something that cannot be described as one could an object. What could it be?

The first hint comes with the lines

by the stove on a winter night with wind and snow

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howling outside and I imagine

the whole world

at peace (13-16).

Wind and snow signifies nature. Accordingly, the gratification the speaker experiences is the sense of being in harmony with nature.  it arouses a sense of peace that cannot be experience under any other circumstances. Not even the raging wind and the howling snow can disturb his feelings. Being in harmony with nature is the “most shining and singular gratification” a person can experience. It is a comforting feeling that warms the heart and assuages the ‘great pain” that one experiences in the physical world. 

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