(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Perhaps interest in “The Flea” is, as the English scholar and writer C. S. Lewis has suggested, mostly accidental. Perhaps, as he says, if the flea had not acquired a reputation as an unpleasant pest, the poem would not be as striking as it is. On the other hand, possibly no conceit ever developed represents as well as Donne’s flea a capacity for total meaning. Such a metaphor, coupled with the argumentative ingenuity of Donne, results in a remarkable poem.

It is impossible to say when the poem was written, but it was published among his Songs and Sonnets, which was included in Poems by J. D.: With Elegies on the Authors Death (1633). The poem’s irreverent tone, its mocking challenge of traditional values, and its sardonic treatment of its subject matter mark it as one of Donne’s earlier poems, when he was known as Jack Donne, “a frequenter of ladies and of plays.” It is inconceivable that Donne could have written the poem after he became the dean of St. Paul’s Church.

Told in the first person, the poem is a dramatic monologue, a form often used by Donne, wherein the narrator, who is a character in the poem, is speaking to someone who never replies. The drama of the poem evolves, however, through the narrator’s response to events shared with the silent companion. In “The Flea,” the narrator has clearly been attempting unsuccessfully to seduce a lady. She has rejected his advances, remonstrating that sex for them would be a sin, a shame, and, for her, a loss of virginity—strong...

(The entire section is 633 words.)