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The Flea John Donne Analysis

Born in 1572, John Donne was an English poet and perhaps one of the best metaphysical poets of his era. His works are notable for their realistic style and include sonnets and love poetry. One of his most famous piece of work is “The Flea”. Historians are yet to determine the exact time this poem was written, but as a posthumous publication, it was published in the year 1633. One must remember the time this poem was composed, the behavior of people was a very conservative one therefore, using conceit to woo the girl, and he tries to break the barriers. The theme of the poem is disguised in the form of a simple insect such as the flea representing lust and seductive desires. A very avid theme of poetic conceit is used in the duration of this poem. This method is used as an extended metaphor, in this case the flea itself. It is indeed a very humorous method of extending the metaphor to add life to the poem.

The guy is asking the girl present to observe a flea in their presence, and is almost imploring her to think “how little” is what he asks from her. This is one of the best examples used in this work of poetic conceit. He has compared the flea and the blood within it to them being as good as married. The flea has sucked his blood and hers, therefore coming to the conclusion, that, the flea consists of both of their bloods mingled in it. He is very suggestive in implying they are almost more than married. In the olden days, making love amongst two lovers was considered mingling their bloods, they would have to be “one flesh” before they could do the deed. So, when he refers to the flee having their bloods mingled already, he implies there is no reason for her to say no to him. He draws her attention to the fact that now that their bloods are already mingled and mixed, giving herself to him would not be considered as a shame or a sin or loss of her virginity as they are already one entity. He feels that the flea has joined them in such a manner,

“And this, alas! Is more than we would do.”

In the next stanza of the poem, as the story progresses, it seems the girl wishes to kill the flea, and the boy stops her by saying “O Stay…” where he’s asked her to stop, as he tries to convince her that this flea not only contains it’s own life, but also theirs. Clare Middleton from the English Review has made an interesting observation regarding his behavior towards women saying,

“This speaker excels in dazzling his female conquests with his wit and intelligence. In ‘The Flea’, his argument that the woman should submit sexually to him twists and turns in response to her unheard words and unseen actions. He claims initially that the flea represents the tiny moral decision facing her (‘How little that which thou deny’st me is’) and then quickly adopts a less flippant tone, suggesting that the flea in fact represents the great sanctity of their sexual contract, because ‘we’re met/and cloistered in these living walls of jet’. When the woman confounds him by killing the flea, its insignificance, which is implicit in her ‘Cruel and sudden’ act, is the cue for the final twist of his argument: ‘Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,/Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee’. From a female point of view, the wittily blasphemous argument is impressive not so much for its details as for its persistence. The phallic imagery of the flea, which ‘pampered, swells with one blood made of two’, implies that the amount of intellectual energy expended in the pursuit is directly proportionate to the physical efforts that might follow the woman’s capitulation. It may not be politically correct, but it is highly erotic.” (Middleton)

Once again, using the idea of conceit, he describes in a very metaphysical manner the connection they have with each other using the flea as a center that is holding their lives within it. He tries to woo her on by saying the “flea” is like their marriage bed and marriage temple, in which their relationship is sanctified and nothing is wrong with it. He hopes she thinks that due to using that as a metaphor, she feels the purity of the deed he wishes to commit and does not look at it as a sin or matter of shame. He extends the flea from just being the institution of the marriage to it now being their ‘marriage bed’ or ‘marriage temple’.

Wisam, in The Explicator published in Washington has expanded on this by stating, “Donne fundamentally probes the dominant, “male” sexuality that the text appears to be pushing the woman toward. In fact, the male speaker in the poem assumes the position of the woman seduced rather than that of the invading flea, whose conduct provides a medium for his contention. The male speaker declares that he is “sucked […] first” (3), and the ambiguity of “this” in line 5 implies that what “cannot be said / A sin, or shame” refers to some extant to the speaker’s experiencing pleasure by that sucking.” – Mansour, Wisam.

The Explicator. v. 65 no1 (Fall 2006) p. 7-9

Very cleverly he plays with words where he says,

“And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.”

Jet, is a deep glossy black stone. In this case, he is referring to the color of the flea. He generates strong imagery in this line, by comparing a lifeless black stone with the “living walls”.

She moves to kill the flea, and he aptly implies she would be killing him and additionally herself. He refers to her killing herself as suicide and mentions “sacrilege” if she were to do it, as she would be committing 3 sins at one go, taking his life, committing suicide and killing the flea.

Donne has used a lot of symbolism in the entirety of the poem. Throughout the poem, he’s used the flea as a symbol of their togetherness, and expands on it being their marriage bed. He alludes to the symbolism of the Holy Trinity when he talks about three things in one body. One of the very interesting modes of symbolism he has used is ‘blood’, particularly in the last stanza.

Blood symbolizes life and Donne has used it to symbolize erotic passion and religious devotion. In the last stanza, she crushes the fly, not paying any heed or attention to his advances on her. He has already mentioned “blood” of theirs being intermingled in the body of the flea, representing them being “one flesh”. He admonishes her and asks her regarding the sin the poor flee had committed other than the fact that the flea just sucked a little blood from them. It is worth mentioning here the role of the female in this poem. Her objections are never noted, just reacted to, and she makes a very powerful yet non-verbal statement by crushing the flea. Very interestingly the reader can see the conceits in which he first tries to show the flea being greater than the church, the sacred relationship between a man and woman and then slowly showing the church and the relationship being greater than just a mere flea. He has realized that she has not fallen for his arguments; therefore he changes tactic and his argument therein. He carries his conceit through, now giving her no reason not to sleep with him, he argues that killing the flea was an easy thing, as she shows it did not harm them, he claims then yielding to him would have just been as easy and painless as killing the flea.

To summarize, this work is a metaphysical play with words, wherein themes such as lust, religious imagery, and playful nature are being used. Donne has used words which allude to spiritual aspects of living in that era which give more than one view on what he is actually trying to say.

In conclusion, the poem uses a lot of religious imagery as it helps add a sort of authority to the poem, as Donne has shown and argued that what they were about to do was not only supported by religion and God, but not doing it would be sacrilege too. The method of poetic conceit was used very cleverly to extend the flea to have many different meanings to it and add more color and humor to it. Kerins, in another Journal talking about The Flea makes an interesting observation, “Donne was the first to have the flea bite “both him and his mistress, thus making it a symbol not of the lover’s desire but of the desired union ” {The Elegies . . . , 174). The flea becomes a union symbol because in its” mingling of bloods” it symbolizes the” mingling of bloods” thought to take place during coition (cf. Gardner, 175).”

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