‘The Flea’ is a rather unconventional love poem written by John Donne in the 1590’s. The situation, in which we find the poem, is that of a man (Mr. Donne), addressing a woman (believed to be his lover). His purpose: trying to persuade her to come to bed with him. The poem incorporates an extended metaphor of a flea, which holds both his and his lover’s blood, as an argument for them to enjoy a physical side to their love. The concept of using a flea as a poem’s main theme was fashionable among poets of the time.
European poets, such as Lopez de Vega, used this in some of his poems. This idea stemmed from an event that happened in a literary salon. This salon was run by two ladies, and on one occasion, a flea happened to land upon one lady’s breast. The poets were amazed at the creature’s audacity, and were inspired to write poetry about this animal. Here, there is no reference to the intellectual dimension to their relationship as with one of Donne’s other poems – ‘The Ecstasy’ – but it is perhaps implied, given that they indeed have had a relationship without sex up until this point.
The line “nay more than married are”, does imply a meeting of minds as well as the physical. Although the logic of his argument is dubious, the narrator’s manipulation of the metaphor of the flea is intricate and effective – he uses the continual comparison with flea as a constant, with which he shifts the argument as if to answer the replies of the partner, whose side of the argument we are unable to hear. “This flea is you and I”, shows this. The tripartite argument progresses throughout the three stanzas, with each stanza introducing a somewhat new element to the argument.
Firstly it is the concept of size – he urges his lover to notice the tiny flea, which has bitten both of them and in which their “two bloods mingled be”. This would seem to be representative of sex, with the imagery suggesting the mingling of bodily fluids (“our two bloods”) and indeed the description that it “swells with one blood made of two”, bringing to mind the birth of a child, that shares both its parents’ blood, and also the concept of size.
In this stanza he is asking his partner to consider how insignificant these acts are in terms of the flea, and how small a thing sex is for her to withhold from him: “How little that which thou deny’st me is”. The second stanza sees Donne, or his persona, being yet more insistent. The suggestion is that sex would not only be a minor thing, were she to allow it, but a significant thing if they were to deny themselves it – for the flea, he argues, is themselves and destroying it would be to destroy their relationship.
This verse also plays on a religious theme of unrequited, almost convent-like chastity, with language such as “marriage temple”, “sacrilege”, “cloistered”, “jet”, (like a rosary) and bringing in the idea of parental disapproval – “parents grudge”. Because his lover is unwilling to sleep with Donne due to her religious background, by using this language, he is assuring her that what he wants to do is in no way wrong. The last line reads “three sins in killing three”.
This can be seen as a reference to the Holy Trinity and that she would be committing a sin if she were to kill the flea, as well as destroy their relationship, as I mentioned previously. In comparison to ‘The Ecstasy’, where Donne acknowledges the greater godliness and importance of spiritual love, we might say that here, he is suggesting that physical love is actually more important than spiritual love, along with the physical trinity of himself, the woman and the flea. In the third stanza, Donne shifts the argument cleverly but illogically.
First he protests that she should not kill the innocent flea because it represents their innocent bodily union, then when his lover has apparently killed the flea and pointed out that they are none the worse for it, he uses this to demonstrate what little loss in global terms her ‘fall from grace’ would be. Donne turns from religious to legal metaphor now with “blood of innocence”, “guilty”, and “false”, and uses aggressive questions almost like a lawyer trying to shame a witness and lead the jury (e. g. “cruel and sudden”).
The Flea’ is composed of rhyming couplets, which are not closed, and an additional line that rhymes at the end of each stanza. The lack of full stops at the end of the couplets mean that contrasting full stops at the end of the each stanza create a sense of finality, separating the argument into three very distinct sections. The stanzas are made more distinct still by the series of three instead of two rhymes at the end of each one. This serves to emphasise the idea of a ‘threesome’ consisting of Donne, his lover and the flea, which in turn unites them.
In conclusion, this is first and foremost a tender love poem – with a difference! The poem’s title – ‘The Flea’ – is nothing to do with love in itself, but it becomes the means of joyous union when “our two bloods mingles be”. Although, most of the poem deals with the poet almost crudely persuading his lover to sleep with him, it alludes not just to physical satisfaction, which is as fleeting as squashing a flea, but also to have a “more than married” beauty of relationships to which all mankind can aspire.