John Donne is perhaps the most famous metaphysical poet of all time. Metaphysical poets tend to be more concerned with analyzing their feelings than actually expressing them. They use bold and ingenious conceits (elaborate metaphors), paradox, a mixture of subtle and complex thought, and direct language filled with the dramatic overtones one would find in everyday speech. Donne is famous for being very present in his poetry, giving the illusion that he is standing behind the speaker directing him what to say. The speaker in his poems is always amid intense emotions; so the poem tends to flow the way a person would feel as they are experiencing some event. The speaker also tells the reader little to no information about the woman that the speaker is in love with. In John Donne’s The Flea, he is witty, cynical, and outright lustful. He uses a flea to illustrate how insignificant it would be for the woman to lose her virginity to him; this is a seduction poem with a bad ending for the seducer. The conceit for this poem is the flea as the binder of two lovers; their relationship begins and ends with the flea.
The flea was seen as an erotic insect in the medieval times. The sensuality of a flea was popularized by a pseudo-Ovidian medieval poem, which chronicles how a man envies the flea’s ability to feed on the man’s mistress whenever it wants to.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead [virginity],
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered [overfed] swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do. (lines 1-9)
The speaker is trying to convince his beloved that she should have sex with him. He argues that sex is a trivial thing; everyone else is doing it, so why not them. The flea sucks his blood first and then hers, joining them together as if they were making love. The speaker is jealous of the flea, because it can have her whenever it wants; the flea doesn’t have to make the woman fall in love with him first. The speaker continues by saying that there is no shame, sin, or loss of virginity when the flea bites her, which makes it the ultimate lover. The flea acts as their surrogate; each contributes their fluid when the flea gorges on their blood, it mixes together inside the flea causing it to swell up with their child. Going along with this train of thought, they have already had sex and nothing bad happened, so there is no reason why they can’t have sex without the flea. In the last line, the speaker has his but if only moment when he forlornly says that what they did with the flea is more than they would ever do. He admits that he is aware of the fact that he will never be intimate with her.
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, we are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet [black].
Though use [habit] make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three. (10-18)
The speaker argues that they are not just married via the flea, they are a family thanks to the flea; they have a child growing inside the flea, which bonds closer than any marriage certificate could. The flea is their only physical link; it is where they conceived their child, and where they were married. The word “cloistered” in line 15 leads the reader to venture that the speaker is in a monastery and his beloved is in a convent. The speaker suggests that their parents wished for them to live a pious life devoid of the sins of man, so they sent them away to be indoctrinated into holy life. The speaker and his beloved met and were joined together, despite their parent’s wishes for them to remain chaste and to live a devout life. The speaker makes it seem like fate brought them together; God wants them to be together, so they should be together. He pleads to her not to kill him by denying him sex, even if it is only metaphorical. He appeals to her religious self by telling her that if she kills the flea she would not only be committing suicide, she would be committing murder, and she would be committing sacrilege (the violation or injurious treatment of a sacred object); all of which are sins.
Cruel and sudden, hast though 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. (19-27).
The speaker’s beloved kills the flea, and bloodies her nail with the blood of an innocent; sinning against God. The flea did not do anything wrong, it was only doing what nature had instilled in it to do, so it did not deserve to die. The lady counters his argument by saying that even though the flea is dead they are not. She rationalized killing the flea by saying that it made them weak, and she feared that it would leave them vulnerable to devilish deeds, so she was doing God’s work when she killed the flea. He acknowledges her argument by saying “’tis true,” but then he counters her by saying that her fears are useless. She shouldn’t fear losing her virginity, because her honor will not be lost; in fact, she will lose no more honor than the amount of blood the flea took from her.
Donne, John. “The Flea.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century / The Early Seventeenth Century. 8th Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1263.