“Choose two or three of the poems you have studied by John Donne and compare and contrast the poet’s treatment of the theme of love. Your analysis should include comments on the poet’s techniques, use of language and stanza form” John Donne’s poetry, although very controversial and vastly different from most poetry of the society to which he belonged, has numerous general characteristics that are common throughout much of his work.
On retrospective analysis, his poems can be chronologically arranged into 3 “phases” of his life – At a young age, Donne wrote very aggressively, sexually and satirically, contrary to the Petrarchan trends expected of poets during this time. Later, after “finding his true love”, his writings consisted of passionate odes to his lover – and later, Wife. As Donne became increasingly involved with the church, his poems also began to include more religious content.
Much of his later work is closely related to his relationship with God and his religious, spiritual, sexual and social beliefs. Although satire, aggression, and controversy are less common later in his life, the core of his techniques and styles remain very similar, as does his determinedly individualistic approach. “The Flea” is a clear example of Donne’s disregard for common poetic conventions, and arguably shows a determination to purposefully break such “rules”.
The template Petrarchan love poem – that idolises women, portraying them as Goddesses – is utterly “turned on its head”. It could be argued that even at this early stage in his writing career, Donne had an interest in social issues and saw these love poems as nothing more than dishonest approaches to attempting to engage in sexual intercourse with a desired partner. Donne’s greatly controversial views on intimate relationships could be seen as somewhat “modern” – even by today’s standards. His language throughout the poem is casual in comparison to other written works of the era and society, and his poetic methods (such as his unusual metaphors) would have been seen as very experimental and avant-garde – a concept that would have been frowned upon by many poets.
In the poem, the persona (possibly an echo of Donne himself, or a situation Donne had been in) tries to persuade a woman to have sexual intercourse with him by arguing that her virginity isn’t as important as she thinks, using a flea as a conceit. Donne makes the poem entertaining by using the simple method of building on the fact that the sheer nature of the poem is humorous, leaving him a large margin in which he could create a believable and interesting persona. This persona makes use of Donne’s poetic techniques to get his argument across.
In the first stanza, the persona compares sexual intercourse to the actions of the flea – biting both the persona and his lover. The comparison is made because it is explained that both of these events involve “two bloods mingled”. The flea is also compared to the persona (or to a more broad entity of a man in general) – by suggesting that by biting the persona’s lover, the flea “enjoyes before it wooe”, therefore gaining an unfair advantage over the persona himself, who would have been expected to “court” this woman. He also mentions that the actions of the flea are not sins, and are not important. He says that the actions of the flea are not “A sinne, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead”. A lot of sexual imagery is also used, using the phrase “pamper’d swells” ambiguously.
A third conceit is made in the next stanza – the persona compares the contents of the inside of the flea to places where the persona and his lover have metaphorically been married, had intercourse, and now live. This is achieved with the lines “This flea is you and I, and this / Our mariage bed, and mariage temple is”. This conceit is made originally to suggest that they are already married and have had intercourse in a metaphorical sense, creating a pattern of logic that suggests it would be acceptable for her to have intercourse in reality as well.
During the last three lines of the stanza, the persona expands on the conceit, finding another use for it – he suggests that if she killed the flea, she would be killing him, killing herself, and destroying a holy place all at the same time. From the beginning of the third stanza, the story has advanced because she has indeed decided to kill the flea. This progressive, time-based writing structure creates a feeling of energy, motion and tension in the poem.
Donne creates a story effect by using the words of the persona as “speech” to his lover. The speech effect is used to describe events that have just happened, effectively emulating regular narration. The persona continues his argument into the third stanza, confessing that she has won the sub-argument relating to the importance of the flea, but by winning that particular argument she defeated her own original argument relating to the importance of her virginity. The poem ends with this final closing argument.