Discuss the features of metaphysical poetry in "The Flea"?

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The Flea" John Donne's speaker uses the metaphysical conceit of a flea's blood-sucking to convince a possible lover to join him in physical (sexual) union.  It's a kind of pick-up line using very clever and elaborate analogies.

The poem is divided into three parts.  Part I is the action of the poem: the flea has sucked the male speaker's blood and the female's.  It establishes the literal and sets up the figurative.

Part II is the conceit, or extended metaphor.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

Metaphysical poetry is all about the metaphysical (above, about, or beyond the physical).  It takes a literal subject, like a flea, and makes it ephemeral, spiritual, or sexual through elaborate analogy.  This comparison is called a metaphysical conceit.  So says Enotes:

The extended analogy is also characteristic of this poetry. “The Flea” presents an example of a metaphysical conceit, a type of analogy that requires more elaboration and explanation than other more obvious analogies. Metaphysical poets saw their world in terms of comparisons. Still, even when the similarities between what the flea does with what the couple could do and then the way the flea symbolizes their love can finally be granted, it still remains a strange, if not bizarre comparison. Its outrageousness is part of the effect of the playful pose the poet creates for the speaker. In later and more serious poems, Donne uses the conceit as a way of analyzing his love and his experience of it. Here the conceit makes the poem entertaining and amusing.

The speaker makes the analogy that the flea is a marriage bed and temple.  The flea is a holy representation of their physical love.  His argument is very clever: since the flea already has both of their blood conjoined, they are effectively married inside the flea.  So, the speaker's logic is thus: the woman--since her virginity is already defeated by the flea--might as well go to bed with the speaker.  After all, she's already been contaminated.

In Part III, the flea is squished by the nail of the female.  This is another conceit that shows the flea's death is a kind of orgasm.  The flea's death signals the end of the lovemaking process, which is also a quick rush of fluids, after which both lovers are left weak.

The ending can be read two ways: either the poem (pick up line) worked or it didn't.  Either the woman killed the flea in ecstasy or in denial of his advances.  I prefer the former reading, although either reading is ironic and humorous.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Samuel Johnson coined the term "metaphysical" to describe a school of seventeenth century poetry of which he was highly critical. He wrote of the metaphysicals that they used: 

a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

It would be hard to come up with images more "dissimilar" than those of erotic love and a fleabite, yet in this poem the narrator likens sexual intercourse to just that. He argues to his beloved that because a flea has bitten first one of them and then the other, they have already, at least metaphorically, had sex because their blood has mingled. Most of us would probably agree with Johnson that likening sexual love to an insect bite is not a pleasing image.

Donne's narrator also yokes together the idea that killing a flea and his beloved having sexual intercourse with him are equally inconsequential. The woman he is trying to persuade might disagree that the sex act is as unimportant as killing an insect. She would know she would face serious consequences were she to get pregnant. The poem could not be more metaphysical than in the oddness of juxtaposing a flea's death (though death is a term for orgasm that Donne is playing with) with erotic love.