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

A summary of one of Donne’s most celebrated poems by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘The Flea’ is one of the most popular poems written by John Donne (1572-1631). Like many of his greatest poems, it contains elements associated with metaphysical poetry. 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 yoking together deliberately incongruous ideas) used by the poet throughout ‘The Flea’ to help him make his ‘argument’. (We say more about the poetic conceit here.) 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.

About John Donne

John Donne (1572-1631) is one of the most important poets of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in English literature. In many ways, what is now known as metaphysical poetry began with Donne and his innovative use of imagery, particularly his fondness for extended metaphors and elaborate conceits which draw on what were, at the time, new scientific theories and discoveries.

Key characteristics of metaphysical poetry include: complicated mental and emotional experience; unusual and sometimes deliberately contrived metaphors and similes; and the idea that the physical and spiritual universes are connected. This last one is where the term ‘metaphysical’ came from: from metaphysics, the branch of philosophy dealing with, among other things, the relationship between mind and matter, or between the physical world and human consciousness. We can observe all of these features in Donne’s poetry.

His early poems, circulated in manuscript in the 1590s when he was still a young man in his twenties fresh out of university, are love poems which are disarmingly frank and direct both in what they show us (lovers together in bed, a man imploring his mistress to undress for him), and in how they address us (‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’ is a refreshingly irreverent line after so many poems in praise of the sun’s life-giving light and warmth, while ‘For God’s sake hold your tongue’ was a daringly blunt way to get your reader’s attention in the age that gave us ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’).

But after his conversion from Catholicism to the Church of England, and his entry into the priesthood (Donne would eventually rise to become Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral), Donne’s poetry replaced his female lover with the figure of God as his subject and addressee. He wrote a series of ‘Holy Sonnets’ which possess all of the directness of his earlier poems, and the same level of passion and fervour. In one poem, Donne calls upon God to ‘ravish’ him. He is regarded as a key figure of the Elizabethan and Jacobean literary world and perhaps second only to Shakespeare in terms of the influence a writer of that time had on subsequent English literature.

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’.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: John Donne, public domain.



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

  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.

  3. 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.