ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Analysis of "The Flea" by John Donne: The Raciest 17th Century Poem You'll Ever Read

Updated on October 18, 2011

From "The Flea"

John Donne’s poem “The Flea” is probably sexiest 17th century poem you will ever read. It could be considered the first poetic instance of a young man using a ridiculous argument to try to convince a woman to go to bed with him. The poem focuses on a flea that has bitten two lovers, so that their blood combines it. The narrator claims that this mixture of blood, “one blood made of two” (9), is the same as sexual intercourse. He argues that since the lovers have metaphorically consummated, (and even produced a child!) within the flea with no ill effect, then there should be no consequences to performing the same act without the intermediary of the flea, i.e. in real life.

Woman Catching a Flea (c. 1638) Georges de La Tour
Woman Catching a Flea (c. 1638) Georges de La Tour

The Argument

Donne uses the device of conceit, or an elaborately sustained metaphor between two unlike things to advance the argument. The conceit is introduced when Donne compares the union of blood within the body of the flea to the sexual act. The conceit is sustained as the flea becomes a microcosm for the world outside the flea. Because the lovers are “cloistered in these living walls of jet” (15), they have formed a union that can be compared to marriage.

“Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare (11), writes Donne. The three lives mentioned here insinuate that a child has come out of the “marriage," which also gives further evidence that the couple has indeed consummated their love within the microcosmic world of the flea-- consummation being necessary for procreation. This microcosm is continued through the second stanza, at the end of which the young lady is warned not to kill the flea because she will be “killing” their family.

In the third stanza the young lady does kill the flea, getting blood on her nail. But even though she has killed the flea, the narrator claims that she “Find’st not they self nor me the weaker now” (24). The microcosm within the flea has been destroyed, but neither of the lovers are worse for the wear with their figurative selves destroyed.

Denial That There are Consequences to Sex

Even though the fact that the death of the lovers within the flea doesn't seem to have any effect in the real word could potentially contradict Donne’s argument, he actually uses this to further the conceit. Because he had feared that harm would arise from killing the flea, and yet there was none, the young woman should cease her worries. Without consequence to the union within the flea, or in the killing of the flea, there should not be any consequence for a sexual union in real life: “Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,/ Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee” ( 26-27).

What Donne hopes to achieve as narrator of the poem is sexual contact with the lady, who is portrayed as a virgin. “A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead” (6), the sexual interaction that the flea enjoys, is “alas, more than we would do" (9). Within the poem, the flea is allowed liberties that the man is not. What Donne hopes to achieve as a poet is somewhat different. The conceit of the flea equaling consummation serves to showcase the wit of the poet, the skill employed in not only creating the metaphor but in managing to sustain it throughout the entire poem.

Love as a Physical Act

"The Flea" compares quite differently to traditional metaphors of love. It likens it to an unusual metaphor, a parasite, rather than something of beauty, like springtime, flowers, or the outdoors, all common images of love poetry during the time.

The poem is very sensual, even sexual, contrary to how most 17th century writers described love and desire. Rather than making love out to be something that is pure and lofty, Donne alludes quite freely to the act of sex. “The Flea” speaks about the act of conception, virginity, and the “marriage bed” (13), in a surprising manner for the time, and indeed one could argue, even in the modern day.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • sen.sush23 profile image


      5 years ago from Kolkata, India

      Though this analysis is quite in the established vein, still it felt good to read it once more. Donne is my favorite, and no doubt, as you say, 'The Flea' is probably one of the raciest of his naughty humor-jammed creativity. Voted up.

    • mjfarns profile image


      7 years ago from Bloomington, Illinois USA

      Very well constructed argument. I enjoyed this analysis very much. Reminded me of being an English major again!

    • sligobay profile image


      8 years ago from east of the equator

      What a lovely gift to find such a fine 'write' without comment. Thank you for this impressive analysis and your fare feminine bias. As a seduction, the poem fails abysmally. A common parasite cannot be an effective vehicle for either romance nor the consummation of that romance.This is more obviously a humorous poetic piece. The female bias of the review is the preconceived notion that every act and word of a gentleman is nefariously directed at the defilement of female modesty. Perhaps that was indeed Donn's quixotic quest, but the evidence is insufficient to prove this lustful intent as fact or knowledge and it is merely the unsubstantiated opinion or belief of the critic.

      What we know as knowledge derives from the history and social milieu of the Elizabethan era and both are inconsistent with the conclusions of the reviewer. Both gender bias and hindsight superimposing modern permissive sexual morality upon the words of the poem centuries later dispute the aspects of both sensuality and sexuality assigned.

      Humour on the other hand, seems more likely. The three lives may be mine, yours and ours, but the little beast has feasted upon the blood of both and left an insufferable itch and blotch to each. Common experience is the primary element of humour. Any other reader of the poem in that era has no doubt had this unpleasant common experience countless times. Though modern comediennes speak of sexual desire as an "itch that needs to be scratched", they do not credit some mite with the godly romantic inspiration and the arrows of Cupid.

      Since Queen Elizabeth died without issue as Donne wrote in his thirties, this poem may have parodied the issue of infertility. More likely, Donne's advances were crushed like a bug by the 'purpled nail" (regal color) of his love interest. How could an insect furnish a worthy womb, even metaphorically? No woman worth her salt would be persuaded to yield in the face of such lame persuasion. However, many a young lady has surrendered her modesty in a spate of uproarious laughter. Of course, I could be totally wrong.

      Thank you, Anaya, for such a wonderful article about an excellent poem. Please excuse my disagreement which is in no way intended to be disagreeable. Kudos.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)