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A Short Analysis of John Donne’s ‘The Flea’

A summary of one of Donne’s most celebrated poems

‘The Flea’ is one of the most popular poems written by John Donne (1572-1631). Here is the poem, followed by a short summary and analysis of it.

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 marriage 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;
’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.

‘The Flea’ is a seduction lyric: in summary, the speaker of the poem is trying to convince the woman to go to bed with him. As with many poems by John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets, there’s an elaborate conceit (a sort of extended metaphor) used by the poet throughout ‘The Flea’ to help him make his ‘argument’. In this case, the conceit Donne1is the flea, which has bitten both the poet and his would-be lover, and drunk the blood from both their bodies. As a result, the blood of the poet and the woman has already mingled in the flea’s body. They are, as it were, sharing bodily fluids. Why not enjoy a physical (i.e. sexual) union by sharing their bodies, now that their blood is already mixed in the flea?

The problem, of course, is that society – not to mention the girl’s parents – aren’t keen on a woman like the poem’s addressee going to bed with a man before she’s married. As the woman goes to kill the flea, the poet protests:

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 marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

The flea contains three lives – its own, plus the lives (or blood) of the two lovers – and this has joined the man and woman together in something that is virtually (‘almost’) marriage, and indeed is in some ways ‘more than’ marriage, because it is more physically intimate (their blood has been shared through the medium of the flea’s body). As with much of Donne’s poetry, the physical and the spiritual are conflated: the flea’s body, in containing the lovers’ blood, donne-the-major-works-oxfordhas become a ‘marriage temple’: their two bodies have been contained or ‘cloistered’ (a holy word indeed) within the flea’s body.

The woman doesn’t listen to the man’s request not to kill the flea, and squashes it beneath her fingernail. She feels no guilt or shame over ending the flea’s life, any more than the flea felt shame in sucking blood from her body. In that case (the poet reasons, seductively), the woman would feel no shame if she allowed herself to be seduced by the poet. It is ‘false’ to fear that one will lose a part of oneself in giving oneself to another person: if the woman yields to her lover’s seductive charms, she will lose no more honour than she did over killing the flea.

Note how the poem ends on a rhyme of ‘me’ and ‘thee’: a couplet that enacts the hoped-for physical coupling of the two lovers. This is significant: earlier in the poem, ‘thee’ had been rhymed with ‘be’, and ‘me’ had come before a be/thee rhyme, but this is the first time that ‘me’ and ‘thee’ are allowed to appear in adjacent lines. The poet has said his piece, and ends by subtly joining himself with the woman verbally. ‘Me’ and ‘thee’, of course, both rhyme with ‘flea’, a word that never appears as a rhyme at the end of any line of the poem. By the end of the poem, the flea that had brought the two lovers together by blood has been killed, but the argument that it has inspired has been brought to its culmination. One thing an analysis of the poem cannot do is say whether the woman said ‘yes’ or not.

Discover all of Donne’s best work with John Donne – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). Discover more classic seventeenth-century poetry with our Andrew Marvell articles: our detailed commentary on Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘The Definition of Love’ and our summary of Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’.

Image: John Donne, public domain.

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Posted on March 3, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. One of my all-time favorites, and I actually took a class in John Donne in college (yeah, I was an English major). I think one great tragedy of our society is that young people today know who Britney Spears is, know who Iggy Azalea is, but can’t tell you who John Donne or Ben Johnson are.

  2. He was a bit of a naughty rogue, wasn’t he? He could write searingly beautiful spiritual sonnets yet had this winking side to him as well.

  1. Pingback: Five Fascinating Facts about John Donne | Interesting Literature

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