Tuesday, 1 October 2013

'The Flea' - A Brief Interpretation of Donne's Poem


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;
    ’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.

It is vital to remember that poetry was not John Donne’s profession, and that when he composed the majority of his poems, he was in fact training to be a lawyer. He didn’t write any of these poems for publication, but in stead he passed them amongst his acquaintances, in the hope that they would find pleasure in his witty verses.

The title of the poem, The Flea, is very brief and straightforward. This entices the reader to continue reading, posing the question of the importance of this flea. It also initiates a recurring theme throughout the poem: that the action that he is beseeching her to do is so small and insignificant, like a flea.

He begins his poem by imploring her to sleep with him, attempting to convince her that the action of sex ought to be considered as innocuous. He does this by writing: ‘How little that which thou deny’st me is;’ Thus he tries to coax her into bed, referring to sex as an action of little consequence. He carries this on by saying, in an ascending tricolon: ‘Cannot be said/A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.’ He is saying that to have sex with him will be innocuous, and she will not be ashamed by doing so.

Keeping in mind that he is attempting to humour his friends, he goes on to say: ‘It sucked me first, and now sucks thee.’ In my opinion, this is the wittiest part of the poem. Although this sounds perfectly reasonable to our ignorant ears, this would indeed have made his friends giggle. In the 18th Century (and before) the ‘s’ at the beginning (or in the middle) of words would look like our modern ‘f’. Again this is Donne’s attempt to entail sexual activity, and therefore make his poem more erotic.

When Donne refers to their ‘bloods mingled’ in the flea, this is also not such an innocent phrase. At that time, the mark of blood on a bed-sheet commonly indicated loss of virginity. Therefore when he refers to her loss of blood, he is in fact making another crude pun about her virginity, or as he refers to it, her maidenhead.

The poem becomes yet cruder when he explains that the flea ‘swells’ with blood, clearly a reference to his penis and his excited state. He then talks about how their blood is mixed together in the flea (‘swells with one blood made of two…’ This is an allusion to marriage: when two people become married, they become one. The mingling of their blood symbolises their marriage; this is a sacrilegious remark, likening sexual activity to that of marriage. It is particularly sacrilegious because they are unmarried, and sex out of marriage was very frowned upon. He then gibes at her slightly by saying: ‘And this, alas, is more than we would do.’ He is saying that they can be mingled in the flea, but she will not yield to him otherwise.

In the next stanza Donne introduces a huge amount of religious diction (‘marriage temple’ and ‘cloistered’) to imply that this act is not a sin. He is hoping to promote the act of sex in her eyes, thus convincing her to submit to him. This paragraph also signals her intent to kill the flea in the final three lines. His reference to suicide (‘Let not to that self murder added be…’) is an attempt to make her spare the flea its life, saying that if she kills the flea, she will be killing herself (as the flea has her blood in it). He then uses more religious diction, explaining that it would be ‘three sins’ for her to kill the flea (because of the mixture of their blood). The flea perhaps symbolises their affiliation, or his chance of sleeping with her, implied when he says: ‘Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is’ when describing the flea.

The next stanza takes place after she has killed the flea, and Donne shows his upset by saying: ‘Cruel and sudden’ and claiming that the flea is not guilty. This could perhaps symbolize her rejection of him.

The last four lines tell of Donne’s final attempt to woo this lady. She has told him that it meant nothing to her, or him, to kill the flea (‘and sayest that thou/Find’st not thyself, nor me, the weaker now.’). He then says to her: ‘Just so much honour, when thou yieldst to me,/will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.’ He is saying that just as this flea’s death has taken no life from her, so having sex with him will take no honour from her, and there is a clear contrast between honour and life. This is his final method of beseeching her: explaining that to have sex with him will not blacken her character, and nor impugn her respectability. He has turned his original argument around (that killing the flea will kill her), by saying that killing the flea, such an insignificant action, is the equivalent of having sex with him.

This poem, in contrast with many of Donne’s other poems, is extremely cold. There is no description of the girl, no praising of her beauty, and no hint of love or passion – his only motive is sex. Donne uses the concepts of lust and seduction in order to humour his friends. The poem also involves his trickery and deception in order to lure young and innocent girls into bed. Overall it exhibits Donne’s metaphysical love-poem mode, and shows his ability to use symbolism and metaphors in order to refer to sex and lust in a comic manner. He demonstrates his skill by narrating an entire poem about sex, without explicitly referring to the matter.


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