Instructor NameCourse NumberDateTitle: Subtitle”The Flea”, a witty poem of seduction and conceit, taken from JohnDonne’s “Songs and Sonets” is the poem that I have chosen to compareto “Song”, another poem of John Donne’s where he is passionatelypleading with his wife not to be disheartened about his departureabroad.
Both poems which belong to ” Songs and Sonets”, written around thetime of the 16th century, show that their title suggests they are bothshort poems, following the traditional form of a sonnet, consisting offourteen lines. However, they are not “songs” in the conventionalsense we think of and none of them are written as a sonnet. In fact,Donne’s poems were intended for circulation around his local pub,”Lincoln’s Inn”, where he could impress his male friends with hisbawdy poetic nature. ” The Flea”, emphatically rejects the Petrarchan tradition of lovepoetry, where the woman is seen as a goddess, an object of desireworth worshipping by a man. Instead, Donne wrote poems that saw theearthy reality of sexual relations between a man and woman.
The poem,whose historical convention probably started with Ovid, shows that itwas common in Elizabethan times to envy a flea for its access to thefemale body. Donne throughout the poem makes references to the flea,presenting a conceit produced of wit, integrity and persuasion. The title, which presents the conceit, is in fact the structure of thepoem, the entire poem depends on this conceit. At first, this is apuzzling image to the reader, it seems bizarre and inappropriate.
However, as the poem continues, Donne’s argument does also, and we seehow reality is conveyed by the vivid imagery of the flea. Donne usesa three-part syllogism in this poem which he delivers in a matter-of-fact- tone:” It sucked me first, and now sucks theeAnd in this flea, our two bloods mingled be”Here Donne shows manipulation towards the woman. He reveals anattitude that is persuasive, but manipulative by saying that sincethey are one in the flea, they should make love anyway, seeing as theyare already joined. I question whether this is love, or lust?Donne presses on with his argument, he develops a series ofpersuasions to attempt his mistress into bed with him:” How little that thou deny’st me is. “Here, Donne is again being manipulative; he is scornful and isappealing to her to see how desperate he is for her to agree.
Byusing a triple structure, he is appealing to her knowledge and isshowing emphasis:” Thou know’st that this cannot be saidA sinne, nor shame, nor loss of maiden head”Here Donne has asked his mistress not to kill the flea, cleverlyrevealing that it would be suicide since both her and Donne are joinedas one in this flea. He uses a hyperbole, the deliberate exaggerationof saying this would be a murder, thus creates effect. He usesemotional blackmail and accusatory towards his mistress. However, theargument is turned around, when she retorts that neither of them areworse off in this act, to which he proceeds a mock concession,pretending to give into her point. The final few lines of the finalstanza show a reversal.
Donne agrees with his mistress’ argument, hecan see how she would be right when she claims that killing a flea isso unimportant. However, there is a clever finish to Donne’sargument, and one that reveals a lot about his attitude to love andwomen. He shows impudence and confidence when he says that no harmhas been done, equally there would there be no harm done if they wereto make love. This shows how he thinks the act of love is so little,he is comparing it to the killing of a flea, a creature so small. Donne reveals his attitude to women throughout this whole poem. Isthis a poem of love, seduction or lust? It is indeed genuinelypersuasive and a poem that certainly carries an intellectual argumentthroughout, but is the poem a compliment to the women, or a means ofsatisfying the male desire resulting in it being highly offensive tofeminists.
It is certain that Donne seems to be enjoying himself ashe puts forwards his argument, there is no doubt it is full of cleverpersuasions, making him appear witty. But does this show that he ismore interested in this clever, witty and persuasive argument, or inhis mistress? As readers, his ingenuity has to be admired, it iscertainly a poem based on a conceit, a product of wit and humour!The poem “The Flea” is written in a tripartite structure well suitedto Donne’s development and construction of his argument. His firststanza allows him to put forward his case, introducing the image ofthe flea and his argument. The second stanza allows him to develophis argument rapidly and the third carries out his triumphantconclusion.
The pace is quick and breathless, it allows him to usehis logic, providing a twist making his persuasions all the moreemphatic. The rhyme scheme of each verse, which is aabbccddd, shows atriplet at the end of each stanza for effect and emphasis. Throughout the poem, the image of a flea is used, which is thendeveloped as the poem proceeds. At first, the image of a flea isalmost disconcerting.
Fleabites were common around the Elizabethantime, it was almost a way of Elizabethan life. The vivid image of its”purple” blood, and its hard, shiny black carapace body, living in”these walls of living jet” is shown when Donne puts his argument inthe syllogism. When Donne puts forward his argument of suggestive murder of both himand herself if she kills the flea, the imagery in this poemintensifies. His argument shows that now his mistress and himself arejoined conjugally, as the flea now isn’t just a symbol of their love,but instead a symbol of their marriage! The flea now represents boththeir wedding bed and the church. This imagery seems absurd, how cana flea represent these? His idea conjoins religious imagery alongwith the flea showing the argument to be elevated and daring.
Donnealso uses the image of the flea for deliberate exaggeration,ludicrously stating that to kill the flea would be a “sin”, a murder. Religious imagery becomes apparent in this stanza, references to”sacrilege” are made, with echoes of another triple identification:the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Donne here shows his despairas he makes connotations of “self murder” and “three sinnes in killingthree. ” It is certain that his bold use of religious imagery based onthe imagery of the flea is shocking and emphasises his confidence andwit to make such claims, adding effectiveness to his argument. Donne shows he is not afraid to combine the sacred with the profane,as an imagery based on the Elizabethan pun “to die” becomes apparent. Thepun, meaning to experience an orgasm is ironic, this of course is whathe is longing for, but shows the imagery of the flea being killed.
This obscene pun is just the start of bawdy connotations we read of inthe end of stanza one:” And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two”Apart from the obvious double entendre of the word “swells” and theerotic overtones in this sentence, the imagery of religion is comparedto the obscene. The language throughout this poem is colloquial; the lexis ispredominantly the lexis of everyday life, deliberately earthy anddirect. This is shown in the first line of the poem as Donne openswith an imperative, “Mark. ” The poem, which is a dramatic monologue,suggests that there is an implied listener by the use of questions andactions shown in the poem showing a sense of living and realpresence. He occasionally uses a very condensed structure, resultingin an elliptical syntax, words are deliberately left out for effect.
His frequent use of monosyllables and commands are also used for theeffect of his argument. Donne takes a risk with experimentedsubjects, imagery and language in “The Flea. ” The poem is notconventional nor is it contemporary. This is shown in the rhythmicscheme and the variety of tone Donne implies, both of which areimportant to the imagery in the poem. The poem “Song” is very different compared to the poem “The Flea. “John Donne writes both, although they each take on a very differentapproach to the woman the poem is written about and how the argumentis developed.
The poem “Song” belongs to a type of poem called a valediction,translating as “saying goodbye,” written around the time he wasleaving for the continent and had to say goodbye to his wife Anne. The poem is tender and sincere, his wife is reluctant to let him go,the tone is heartfelt and passionate. It has a lyrical quality, likea song. Once again, like in “The Flea,” there is the strong presence of animplied listener.
The poem this time does not begin with a harshimperative, there is a more direct address opening:” Sweetest love I do not goFor weariness of thee. “The use of “thee” and “thy” throughout the poem helps to sustain thepresence of that listener. The argument in this poem is entirely different from the bawdy conceitthe poem “The Flea” is based on. The tripartite structure is not usedin “Song,” his intellectual argument is strong throughout the fivestanzas the poem consists of.
The five-verse form allows Donne to showhis complex and metrical diversity. His passion and logic are fusedtogether; he is pleading desperately with his wife to accept thenecessity of his journey. The poem shows a variety in the argument,but unlike the use of imagery shown in the poem “The Flea,” the use isnot as frequent. Quite frequently Donne makes an analogy, andcompares himself to the sun, implying a central theme of the suncomparing it to his wife and that just like the Sun, he will tooreturn.
There is a comparison to the Greek mythology sun God calledPhaeton:” But believe that I shall makeSpeedier journeys, since I takeMore wings and spurs than he. “By Donne comparing himself to the winged horse-god who was said tocarry the sun across the sky in a chariot, Donne is showingreassurance to his wife. He is providing a myth to help back up hisargument by saying that he will make a speedier journey back to herthan Phaeton can. From the start of the poem “Song,” it is clear that Donne’s attitudeto love and women is entirely different to this in “The Flea. ” Theargument throughout the poem is entirely different to “The Flea,” itshows that “Song” is a poem of passion and heartfelt love.
Bawdy,sexual connotations are absent, Donne does not feel lust. In verse one, Donne is reassuring his lover that his departure issimply a “practice” for their departure and that there is no otherreason for him going away. By him reassuring her that there is noother woman, that he is not desiring for someone else or that he lovesher any less than he did the previous day, it shows compassion andrespect, something very different from in the poem “The Flea. ” Likein “The Flea” Donne shows persuasion here, but the level of persuasionin each poem is very different. Verse two depends on a clever comparison between him and the sun; thesun is personified for his argument.
Just as the sun returns each dayto shine and give light, he himself will return to his wife. Thisshows incentive, he is willing to spur his wife on, by giving hersomething logical to think of. Verse three is again logical; Donne has combined passion and logictogether in this poem. Donne is showing how his wife is feeling, heunderstands her and can relate to her, something which cannot be saidabout his attitude to the mistress in the other poem. His wife isfeeling miserable, she is extremely upset and is making the situationmuch worse than it is by dwelling on it. Donne starts to use tenderemotional blackmail in the end of this verse, and continues into versefour.
He says that if she cannot control herself and she is going tocarry on being as upset, then she is making him even more upset thanshe is. Here he shows compassion, he can understand why his wife isupset, he knows it is natural, but he cannot bear seeing her in suchdistress. ” When thou sigh’st, thou sigh’st not wind,but sigh’st my soul awayI think that this shows true love, he does not want to see her in hercurrent state and so he figures out that if he says it will make himeven more subdued, she will eventually come round for both his andhers sake. The final verse again shows Donne’s love for his wife. He showsreassurance, showing that even though they may be apart for a littlewhile, they will always have each other in each other’s hearts, andthat they will never really be parted.
His final argument ofpersuasion is that they don’t really need the physical presence, aslong as there is the matter of trust then he will return to her oncemore. Overall, by the structure and language used in “Song”, the poem isvery consoling and reassuring. Compared to “The Flea,” it is verydifferent as the respect for the women the two poems are written fordiffer enormously. Indeed both poems are extremely clever andlogical, with well thought out ideas for argument and persuasion, andare full of wit and clever analogies. However, “Song” shows adifferent side to John Donne’s character than “The Flea” presents, heappears more softer and respectful, consoling and loving than when heappears bawdy and obscene, shallow and disrespectful.