A Critical Analysis of John Donne’s poem: Flea.

Flea was a popular subject for ribald and amatory poetry during the Renaissance. In this respect, the Renaissance poets imitated Ovid who has a poem on the subject. The argument used by the poet is that the flea has a free access to the body of the beloved which is denied to the lover. Donne, however, makes a plea for physical union, which is necessary for spiritual love. Donne’s originality and intensity makes it a powerful lyric.

Grierson observes: “It is a strange choice to our mind, but apparently the poem was greatly admired as a masterpiece.” John Donne’s “The Flea” is a seduction poem in which the author presents the title insect to his lover as a symbol of the potential consummation of their relationship.  The poem is organized into three stanzas of nine lines each.  Each of these stanzas deals with a different aspect of Donne’s argument.  Donne uses metaphors, images, and general persuasion to try to bend his lover’s thoughts to his way of thinking.  In the end, Donne presents a convincing argument through his use of logic and his use of the flea as a metaphor for he and his lover’s relationship. But The Flea is an excellent example of how he was able to establish a parallel between two very different things. In this poem, the speaker tries to seduce a young woman by comparing the consequences of their lovemaking with those of an insignificant fleabite. He uses the flea as an argument to illustrate that the physical relationship he desires is not in itself a significant event, because a similar union has already taken place within the flea. However, if we look beneath the surface level of the poem, Donne uses the presence of the flea as a comparison to the presence of a baby, thus making the sub textual plot about aborting the baby.

First Interpretation: This funny little poem again exhibits Donne’s metaphysical love-poem mode, his aptitude for turning even the least likely images into elaborate symbols of love and romance. This poem uses the image of a flea that has just bitten the speaker and his beloved to sketch an amusing conflict over whether the two will engage in premarital sex. The speaker wants to, the beloved does not, and so the speaker, highly clever but grasping at straws, uses the flea, in whose body his blood mingles with his beloved’s, to show how innocuous such mingling can be–he reasons that if mingling in the flea is so innocuous, sexual mingling would be equally innocuous, for they are really the same thing. By the second stanza, the speaker is trying to save the flea’s life, holding it up as “our marriage bed and marriage temple.” a rare conceit to be found elsewhere. But when the beloved kills the flea despite the speaker’s protestations (and probably as a deliberate move to squash his argument, as well), he turns his argument on its head and claims that despite the high-minded and sacred ideals he has just been invoking, killing the flea did not really impugn his beloved’s honor–and despite the high-minded and sacred ideals she has invoked in refusing to sleep with him, doing so would not impugn her honor either.  Donne has used the flea as an erotic image. Donne’s poise of hinting at the erotic without ever explicitly referring to sex, while at the same time leaving no doubt as to exactly what he means, is as much a source of the poem’s humor as the silly image of the flea is; the idea that being bitten by a flea would represent “sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead” gets the point across with a neat conciseness and clarity that Donne’s later religious lyrics never attained.
Donne uses new conceits to advantage through the flea-bite. First, the mingling of the bloods of the lover and the beloved in the body of the flea is no matter of sin or shame. The flea has caused the mingling of the blood of the two and therefore there should be no objection to their sex-relationp. The conceit of the flea as a temple and as a marriage-bed is original, so also the sin of triple-murder by the proposed killing of the flea by the beloved. Note Donne’s Unification of Sensibility in the lines:
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage 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 kill me,
Let not to that self murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Second Interpretation: In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker develops similarities between the fleabite and lovemaking. The first two lines of the poem, “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that, which thou deny’st me, is;” I interpreted to mean that the woman doesn’t deny the flea access to her body, yet she denies the advancements of the speaker. Next the speaker uses conceit to illustrate the similarities between their lovemaking and the mingling of their blood within the flea. “Me is sucked first, and now sucks the, An in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” The speaker uses this argument to show the woman that the same physical exchange, which takes place between her and a flea, is the same type of union that he is proposing. The speaker uses the following lines of the stanza to reassure the woman that their act could not be considered a sin because a fleabite isn’t considered as such. Such a common event cannot be a loss of innocence because if that were true nearly everyone would have lost his or her innocence. Therefore this lady should not worry about giving herself to him before they marry, because their only act is the mixing pf their blood. The final lines of the first stanza are the point in which the poet introduces the sub textual idea of the baby. “And pampered swells with one blood made of two.” On the surface this line describes the physical changes that happen to a flea’s body after it fills with blood. These lines also suggest that the swelling may mean pregnancy. The speaker then tries to persuade her that this “swelling” is more than they wish to accomplish with their encounter by proclaiming “And this, alas! Is more than we would do.”
In the second stanza of the poem the woman is about to remove the flea from her body. Sub textually, the woman has become pregnant and wants to end her pregnancy, which will also end her relationship with the speaker. The speaker’s attention focuses on arguments to persuade her to spare the baby. “Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, Where we almost, nay more than married are.” The speaker tries to spare the baby by saying that the baby’s life has joined them eternally, the same way marriage would join them. “This flea is you and I, and this our marriage bed and marriage temple is.” Therefore, the result of this union cannot be considered a sin. The next lines in the stanza describe how the woman is an unwilling to accept his explanation of marriage. “Though parents grudge, and you, we are met, and cloistered in these living walls of jet.” In the last lines of the stanza the speaker tells the woman that she may want to end the baby’s life because the baby is his, “Though use make you apt to kill me, Let not to that, self-murder added be,” but if she does end the baby’s life she will also be ending the part of the baby that is her. In the last stanza, the woman has ended her pregnancy. “Cruel and sudden, hast thou since Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?” This line is a graphic portrayal of the first moments of the abortion. The act was quick and then the blood of the innocent child was spilled. The speaker continues by pointing out the innocence of the child. He asks “Wherein could this flea be guilty be, except in that drop, which it sucked from thee? In this line, I interpret the speaker’s actions to me equivalent to him
This poem is and excellent example of John Donne’s work. On the surface he uses conceit to paint a beautiful dedication to his love for one woman and his attempt in seducing her. In the sub text, he uses conceit to illustrate how the woman in the poem identifies the flea and the baby both as parasites that invade her body. I find his use of unusual parallels intriguing. The meaning of his poems changes depending on the mood of the reader.  The Flea, in short, is a remarkable lyric, remarkable for its realism, for its emotional intensity and for the ingenuity with which Donne has argued the case for physical union without any social inhibitions. Critics differ about the justification of sex-relationship. James Keeve calls the poem “cynical and unpleasant”, while A.J. Smith regards it anti-courtly and anti-Petrarchan. The poem is remarkable for its emotional intensity.

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