Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633
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 traditional arguments in seventeenth century England. Yet her arguments, perhaps even more than the prospect of sex, inspire the narrator to new heights of argumentative persuasion couched in the conceit of the flea.
He begins with the assertion that sex between them would have no more effect than the bite of a flea, but he then paradoxically argues for the significance of the flea he has just belittled. Now he claims that the flea represents the marriage bed, the ideal of sexuality; the Church, the sanctifier of marriage; and at least an earthly reflection of the Trinity, in that it represents three lives in one: the lives of Donne, the lady, and the flea. Why this paradoxical shift? Apart from Donne’s love of paradox, he probably expects his argument to show that since all three of the impediments to sex—marriage, Church, and Trinity—can be summed up in a flea, they are not significant obstacles.
Donne next argues that he is concerned that she will, by killing the flea, commit the triple crime of his murder, her own suicide, and the destruction of their sexual union, crimes all possible because the bloods of Donne and the woman are mixed in the flea. He believes that the lady is capable of such murder because, by withholding her sexual favors from him, she constantly kills him.
Even as Donne speaks, the lady kills the flea and triumphantly declares that his fears are unfounded, for the death of the flea weakens neither her nor Donne. In a brilliant reversal, Donne turns her argument against her, pointing out that just as she insists that the blood lost in the death of the flea is nothing, so blood lost in her yielding to him would be equally insignificant.
The argument of the poem is well wrought, and as the conceit unfolds, its elements lose their identities in a new way of looking at sexual love. Significantly, even as Donne cajoles and teases the lady into accepting his conclusion, readers find themselves drawn into the argument, shocked perhaps by the appearance and function of the flea but pleased with the overall effect, thus proving the efficacy of Donne’s conceit.