The Flea

The Flea

by John Donne

The Flea Poem Summary and Analysis

In Short

  • In the poem “The Flea” the speaker insists his ladylove to sleep with him before marriage, but she denies.
  • The speaker now asks her to look at a flea which has sucked blood from both.
  • Their blood has mingled in the flea’s body. According to him, it is almost a sexual union and more than marriage. But there is no shame or sin in this.
  • So, the speaker opines, the lady should not be worried about losing virginity. It is of less significance than she thinks.

The Flea – Explanation

Stanza – 1

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;

It looks like the poem begins in the middle of a conversation. The speaker’s ladylove has denied him something. The speaker asks her to look at the little insect, the flea and to realize that what she denies him is less significant than she thinks.

The word ‘mark’ indicates it’s important. Anyway, we still don’t know what actually the beloved has denied him. Let’s keep reading.

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

The flea at first sucked the blood of the speaker by biting him and now it sucks the beloved’s blood. Thus, their blood has mingled in the flea’s body. It is like being united sexually. Actually, the society in Donne’s time literally viewed sex as the mingling of blood and bodily fluids.

So, now we know what the fuss is all about. Now we get the speaker’s context. Understandably, he wanted to have a sexual intercourse with his ladylove but she denied to get physical before marriage. That is why our speaker is now trying to convince her on how trifle the matter actually is. Here repeated use of the word ‘suck’ heightens the sexual touch which is the hallmark of Donne’s love poems.

Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

The speaker now refers to the flea and means that it is an innocent creature moving from host to host and sucking their blood. So, she must acknowledge that this mingling of blood is neither a sin nor a shame. In fact, it is not loss of ‘maidenhead’, i.e., virginity.

The speaker’s point here is that if mingling of their blood in the flea is not a sin, why should their love-making then be a sin either?

Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

The flea has enjoyed having feasted on the beloved’s blood ‘before it woo’, i.e., before courtship and marriage. So, why is he denied the same?

The flea’s body is now swelled up with their respective blood and the two blood has now become one in its body. The lover regrets that the flea’s action is ‘more’ than what the speaker and his beloved would do. He just wanted to have sex with her but this flea has gone too far as it mingles their blood directly in its body. The speaker here feels jealous and sees the flea as his rival.

Stanza – 2

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;

The ladylove almost goes to kill the flea when the speaker resists her. By the words ‘Oh stay’ we realize that the beloved gets ready to kill the flea. He stops her by telling that the flea contains three lives inside it.

Here, the speaker brings the Christian concept of Holy Trinity, three persons in one god. He manages to turn the flea into a religious symbol which also contains three spirits – his, her and the flea’s. In its body, they are almost married – no, more than married.

In the flea’s body, his and her blood is mingled. In its body they’ve joined in one like the joining of their bodies in sexual love after marriage. So, the flea’s body is both their marriage bed and marriage temple. The speaker argues that he and the lady have already bypassed the usual vows of fidelity and ceremony of marriage through this flea. So, the lady now must not kill it.

Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

Despite her parents’ and her own objections (grudge), their blood mingles (w’are met) in the body of the flea, as it does in the sex-act. Both the lady and her parents think that physical union should take place only after marriage. But they are now safely together inside the little flea – within the dark (like jet) living walls of its body.

Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

It seems like the lady is not at all pleased with the speaker. He thinks that her natural inclination and habits (use) would lead her to want to kill him. But he warns her against killing the flea because by killing it she would not only murder him, but also add self-murder and sacrilege to the list of her sins.

If she kills the flea, it will be self-murder or suicide as the flea has sucked her blood too. Self-murder is prohibited by religion. Again, killing an innocent creature would be a sin and sacrilege. Thus, by killing the flea, she would kill three and would be judged for three sins – murder, suicide and sacrilege.

Stanza – 3

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

Despite all the pleading not to kill the flea, the lady now suddenly kills it. The speaker calls her action cruel and sudden. She has purpled her nails with the blood of the innocent flea.

Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?

The speaker asks his lady – “What is the fault of this flea?” He thinks it has not done anything wrong except sucking that one drop of blood from each of their body. The flea is an innocent creature and its action is just a rule of nature.

Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;

The beloved is triumphant after killing the flea. She proudly claims that neither she nor he is in any way weaker now than they were before for having killed the flea.

The speaker argued earlier that killing the flea will be killing both of them. So, now she goes against his argument and proves him wrong, as she doesn’t lose any of her strength after killing the insect. The lady thus triumphs not only over the flea but also over the speaker.

’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 speaker is clever enough here to turn the words of his beloved against her. She just said that the death of the flea hasn’t weaken them and showed it as a small incident. Similarly, he opines, in giving her virginity to him (thou yield’st to me) she will lose as much honour as she lost life or strength in killing the flea.

Thus, the speaker attempts to convince her that losing virginity and enjoying sexual love before marriage is not as important an issue as she thinks. It does not have greater consequence on their life and is as insignificant as killing the flea is.

The Flea – Into Details

Publication

“The Flea” is an erotic metaphysical poem written by John Donne. The exact date of its composition is unknown. Most probably written in the 1950s, it was first published posthumously in 1633.

Background/Context

Philip Sidney’s love sonnets were published in 1950 in “Astrophel and Stella”. Donne and a lot of other poets were inspired by its popularity. So, a large explosion of love poetry was seen in the literary world. Donne’s poem “The Flea” was written during this explosion.

Basically, it’s a poem of seduction. It draws on a tradition of ‘flea’ poems that stretch back to the Roman poet Ovid.

When “The Flea” was written in the 1590s when Queen Elizabeth was in the throne. Her unmarried status played an important role in maintaining her position and power as a female ruler. Virginity was seen with high esteem in the then English society. In “The Flea” Donne attempts to break that stereotype arguing that virginity is not really all that important.

Setting

We don’t get much explicit information about the poem’s settings. But from the speaker’s conversation with his beloved, it is clear that he is trying to convince her to sleep with him before their marriage. So, we can guess that it takes place in a bedroom. If we take “The Flea” in a broader scale, the poem is set in the Renaissance England. Many social norms and taboos were seen the then society. Women were pressurized to preserve their virginity until marriage.

Title

The title of the poem “The Flea” at the first glance suggests that the poem has something to say about the insect. No one expects a love poem inside.

Donne, however, has cleverly used an insect as a metaphor for a sexual union between a man and a woman. The flea is here rather an excuse for the speaker to woo his ladylove. And being a distant comparison, it serves well the metaphysical conceit of the poem.

Form and Language

John Donne’s “The Flea” is a metaphysical poem marked by strange logics and distant comparisons.  To think the flea’s body to be the lovers’ marriage bed and marriage temple is quite ingenious and out of the normal range of metaphors. In its bizarre comparisons and logics “The Flea” resembles Donne’s other poem “The Sun Rising” while in its eroticism it is similar to “The Good Morrow”.

The poem is also a good example of Donne’s lyric poems. The intensity and immediacy of emotion expressed in the poem makes it quite remarkable.

The speaker here is an anonymous lover addressing his ladylove. He is trying to convince her that virginity is not that important and they should sleep together before their marriage.

“The Flea” is made up of three stanzas of nine lines each. The first six lines of each stanza are rhyming couplets and the final three lines are rhyming tercets. The form of the poem with its nine-line stanzas and alternating meters is unusual and rather unique in English poetry. The rather simple language compliments the speaker’s argument well and makes the reading a pleasure.

Meter and Rhyme

The three couplets and a tercet in each stanza of the poem “The Flea” form a rhyme scheme of AABBCCDDD. As for the metrical pattern, iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter are used in alternative lines.

An iamb is a two-syllable foot where a stressed syllable follows an unstressed one. Iambic tetrameter lines consist of four such feet whereas pentameter takes five feet. Let’s have an example –

This flea | is you | and I, | and this
Our marr– | iage bed, | and marr– | iage tem– | ple is;

In the above example (Lines 12 and 13), the first line is iambic tetrameter and the next line is pentameter.

The Flea – Themes

Sex and Marriage

Donne’s poem “The Flea” is a seductive one where the speaker insists his beloved to lose her virginity to him before marriage. In the Elizabethan society women were pressurized to preserve virginity until marriage. But the speaker here argues that it is less significant and losing one’s virginity before marriage is no shame.

In the Renaissance period people believed that during sex, blood and other bodily fluids of two persons get mixed up. The speaker here notes that their blood mixes in the flea’s body too, and it is not seen as a sin or shameful thing. Thus, he argues that premarital sex should not be an issue at all. Actually, the poet here challenges and wants to remake the social norms around sexuality and marriage.

Virtue and Honour

The speaker’s ladylove doesn’t agree to get to bed with him before marriage. She and her parents find it against the societal norms and a dishonour. They feel virginity is a virtue because the society has taught them so. Being virtuous in society’s terms makes a person honourable in people’s eyes. So, it is understandable that a lady won’t agree to lose her virginity before marriage in the then English society.

But, the speaker in the poem finds no shame or dishonour in physical love before marriage. He rather mocks all these stereotypes by presenting an almost absurd logic of mingling of bloods in the flea’s body. The poet here attempts to shatter all these social taboos and redefine the concepts of virtue and honour.

The Flea – Symbols

Blood

Though the Elizabethan people viewed sex as mingling of blood itself, the present modern world knows that this is wrong. So, the reference of blood and its mingling can be seen as a symbol for sexual union and marriage. The speaker, in fact, comments that the flea’s body has become their marriage bed and marriage temple with the mingling of their blood inside it and this is more than marriage.

Where we almost, nay more than married are.

Moreover, the speaker equates blood with life. He says that the flea contains three lives – its own, his and hers – because it has sucked blood from the speaker and his lady. Blood thus becomes a symbol for life too.

This flea is you and I, and this

Parents grudge

The lady’s parents are disapproving of the speaker’s wish to have physical relationship with their daughter before they marry. This can be viewed as a symbol of parental authority over their children, especially over females. It also signifies the power and authority practiced by the broader society over us through established societal norms.

The Flea – Literary Devices

End-Stopped Line

An end-stopped line is a line of verse that ends with a punctuation. Donne mostly uses end-stopped lines in his poems. The present poem is not an exception. For example –

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;

Enjambment

In an enjambment a sentence continues to the next line of a verse without pause. For example –

Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Caesura

A caesura in poetry is a pause (with a comma, semicolon etc.) in the middle of a line. In “The Flea” you can find single or multiple caesuras in as much as 18 lines out of 27.

This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this, (‘i’ sound)

Wherein could this flea guilty be, (‘i’ sound)

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in neighbouring words.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

(repetition of ‘m’, ‘r’, ‘k’, ‘th’ and ‘s’ sounds)

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

(repetition of ‘th’, ‘n’, ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds)

Alliteration

Alliteration is a sub-category of consonance. It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the beginning (or, stressed syllables) of nearby words.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

(repetition of ‘m’ and ‘th’ sounds)

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

(repetition of ‘th’ sound only)

Metaphor

A metaphor is an implicit comparison between two different things where there is a point of similarity.

In the poem the speaker compares the flea’s body to the marriage bed and marriage temple because the two lovers’ blood mingles in its body, effectively causing a physical union. This is an example of metaphor.

This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Conceit

A conceit is an inventive or fanciful comparison. Donne’s poetry is best known for its metaphysical conceits.

The mingling of blood in an insect’s body is compared to sexual union in this poem. Again, the two drops of blood sucked by the flea from the two lovers’ body are compared to two lives living inside the flea.

Personification

Personification is the attribution of human qualities on non-human elements.

Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,

In the above extract, the flea has been personified. The speaker says that the flea enjoys having feasted on his ladylove’s blood. The verbs ‘enjoy’ and ‘woo’ and the adjective ‘pampered’ are used on the flea, making it look like a human being.

Circumlocution

Circumlocution is using many words in a roundabout way where fewer words would do.

And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

The poet here uses “living walls of jet” to mean the flea’s body. This is an example of circumlocution.

Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question is a question in structure but not meant for an answer. They are mainly used to emphasize some point.

In “The Flea”, there are two rhetorical questions in lines 19-20 and lines 21-22.

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?

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