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John Donne's "The Flea"

John Donne's early poems focus on secular topics, while his Holy Sonnets enlighten and enliven the beautiful tradition in spiritual writing.

Introduction and Text of "The Flea"

The speaker in John Donne's "The Flea" employs a twisted kind of reasoning, claiming that the blood of the courting pair is mingling in the flea's body and, therefore, their engaging in sex cannot be considered "a sin, nor shame" nor loss of virginity.

This speaker is dramatizing his crooked notion that if they had intercourse, they would also cause bodily fluids to "mingle" which would be less than the mingling of blood in the flea. The speaker wants to girl to accept his logic that they have essentially already engaged in coitus by allowing the flea to conjoin their blood.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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 mariage 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;v

’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.

Recitation and Interprative Enactment of "The Flea"

John Donne

John Donne

Commentary

This seduction poem features the unique employment of the conceit, or extended metaphor, of a flea sucking blood.

First Stanza: The Prick of a Flea-Bite

In the first stanza of Donne's "The Flea," the speaker asks the woman to think about how little and insignificant would be the loss of her virginity. He compares it to the prick of a fleabite. He then remarks that first the flea bit him and then it bit her, both times sucking out some of their blood, which means that their blood in "mingl[ing]" in the flea's body.

The speaker then uses a twisted kind of reasoning, saying that their blood mingling in the flea's body is not considered "a sin, nor shame" and not loss of virginity. Yet if they had intercourse, they would also cause bodily fluids to "mingle" and that is less than the mingling of blood in the flea. The speaker wants to girl to accept his reasoning that they have essentially already had sex by allowing the flea to cause their bloods to conjoin.

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Second Stanza: A Venture in Absurdity

The woman starts to whack the flea, but the speaker stops her and then begins another report of absurdity, likening the fleabite to their having sexual intercourse. He audaciously groans, "O stay, three lives in one flea spare, / Where we almost, yea, more than married are." The three lives in the flea, of course, are the speaker, the woman, and the flea itself.

And since they are, in the speaker's warped reckoning, having sex in the flea's body, they are, in fact, "more than married," although they are obviously not married at all. The speaker claims metaphorically that the flea is their "marriage bed, and marriage temple."

The speaker then dramatizes her attempt to kill the flea by calling her act "self-murder" and "sacrilege" and that she would acquire "three sins in killing three." He exaggerates that if she kills the flea, she will be killing not only herself, but also the speaker and the flea.

Third Stanza: Specious Claim

The woman does not fall for the specious claims made by her would-be seducer as she suddenly squashes the flea, which squirts the blood on her fingers. The speaker acts alarmed that she could be so cruel and that she would be so careless as not to follow the logic of surrendering to him sexually.

The woman has thrown his logic back in his face by remarking that they are not dead even though the flea is. And while the speaker has to concede that point, he then moves on to another point by turning the argument on her. He says in effect, by killing the flea, she can realize how useless fears are. She should not fear loss of her honor if she gives in and surrenders her virginity to him. He argues that the amount of honor she will lose is just the same amount of blood the flea took from her.

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

Reading of "Death's Duel"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on June 11, 2016:

Yes, such transformations are always fascinating . . . glad he did change to focusing his talent in wholesome ways. Thanks for commenting, Anne!

Anne Harrison from Australia on June 11, 2016:

I remember studying this poem in my final year if school. Interesting how Donne went from writing poems of hyperbole seduction to his religious works of later life. Thanks for sharing the memories!

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