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John Donne's "The Flea"

Updated on April 12, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Donne

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Flea"

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The speaker in Donne's "The Flea" uses a twisted kind of reasoning, saying that their blood mingling in the flea's body is not considered "a sin, nor shame" and not loss of virginity.

This speaker is dramatizing his crooked notion that if they had intercourse, they would also cause bodily fluids to "mingle" which would be less than the mingling of blood in the flea. The speaker wants to girl to accept his logic that they have essentially already engaged in coitus by allowing the flea to conjoin their blood.

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;v

’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

Reading of "The Flea"

John Donne

Source

Commentary

This seduction poem features the unique employment of the conceit, or extended metaphor, of a flea sucking blood.

First Stanza: The Prick of a Flea-Bite

In the first stanza of Donne's "The Flea," the speaker asks the woman to think about how little and insignificant would be the loss of her virginity. He compares it to the prick of a fleabite. He then remarks that first the flea bit him and then it bit her, both times sucking out some of their blood, which means that their blood in "mingl[ing]" in the flea's body.

The speaker then uses a twisted kind of reasoning, saying that their blood mingling in the flea's body is not considered "a sin, nor shame" and not loss of virginity. Yet if they had intercourse, they would also cause bodily fluids to "mingle" and that is less than the mingling of blood in the flea. The speaker wants to girl to accept his reasoning that they have essentially already had sex by allowing the flea to cause their bloods to conjoin.

Second Stanza: A Venture in Absurdity

The woman starts to whack the flea, but the speaker stops her and then begins another report of absurdity, likening the fleabite to their having sexual intercourse. He audaciously groans, "O stay, three lives in one flea spare, / Where we almost, yea, more than married are." The three lives in the flea, of course, are the speaker, the woman, and the flea itself.

And since they are, in the speaker's warped reckoning, having sex in the flea's body, they are, in fact, "more than married," although they are obviously not married at all. The speaker claims metaphorically that the flea is their "marriage bed, and marriage temple."

The speaker then dramatizes her attempt to kill the flea by calling her act "self-murder" and "sacrilege" and that she would acquire "three sins in killing three." He exaggerates that if she kills the flea, she will be killing not only herself, but also the speaker and the flea.

Third Stanza: Specious Claim

The woman does not fall for the specious claims made by her would-be seducer as she suddenly squashes the flea, which squirts the blood on her fingers. The speaker acts alarmed that she could be so cruel and that she would be so careless as not to follow the logic of surrendering to him sexually.

The woman has thrown his logic back in his face by remarking that they are not dead even though the flea is. And while the speaker has to concede that point, he then moves on to another point by turning the argument on her. He says in effect, by killing the flea, she can realize how useless fears are. She should not fear loss of her honor if she gives in and surrenders her virginity to him. He argues that the amount of honor she will lose is just the same amount of blood the flea took from her.

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

Source

Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 22 months ago from U.S.A.

      Yes, such transformations are always fascinating . . . glad he did change to focusing his talent in wholesome ways. Thanks for commenting, Anne!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 22 months ago from Australia

      I remember studying this poem in my final year if school. Interesting how Donne went from writing poems of hyperbole seduction to his religious works of later life. Thanks for sharing the memories!

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