The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

In the lyric poem “The Flea,” by John Donne, a clearly-individualized speaker attempts to persuade a lady to make love with him. He does this through a clever, well-constructed, tongue-in-cheek argument. Presented as a conversation between two people in which the man does all of the talking, the speaker pleads for the love of the woman. The silent woman responds with an unequivocal action; she squashes the flea and, in effect, his argument. The plea takes the form of three patterned stanzas of rhymed, generally iambic pentameter verse. This strict form belies the familiar manner the speaker assumes as he, apparently spontaneously, develops an analogy about himself and the lady and a flea. In the analogy, he compares what he would like to see happen, their intimate union, with what they can observe and assume about their blood mingling within the body of the flea.

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The speaker begins speaking as if he and his longed-for mistress were already in a conversation. He seems to be pursuing yet another direction in his attempt to effect the woman’s acquiescence when he tries this: “Mark but [look at] this flea.” In pointing out the flea which has jumped into sight, the man begins an extended analogy that demands witty explanation and elaboration in order that it become a rationale for his position. He says that because the flea has sucked the blood of both of them, they are intimately connected, yet as all, his lady in particular, know there has been no sin, “nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.” The speaker then goes on to complain that this flea did not even have to “woo” her as he must do.

The second stanza draws his beloved into the poem as he begs her not to kill the flea. “Stay,” he pleads. The flea, he contends, has become an icon of their love, embodying them, at least their blood, literally. In so doing the flea brings them together and is their “marriage bed” or even, he declares, their “marriage temple.” As temple, the flea acquires a sacred quality, able to cloister, or hold safely, these two potential lovers as a church protects two refugees. In the “walls of jet,” that is the body of the flea, these two are kept safe from the enemy, her protective parents.

To dissuade her from killing the flea, he alleges that in killing the flea she will kill herself, a sacrilegious act, as well as kill the flea and him. The line, “Though use make you apt to kill me” refers to the seventeenth century belief that each instance of sexual intercourse shortened the length of one’s life and weakened the participants.

The lady does kill the flea, “Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence.” The ingenious speaker seizes one last strategy when she apparently concedes, at least partially, to the analogy, when she says that neither of them is “the weaker now.” He points out that seeing that this fear is groundless provides evidence that other fears are as well: “Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me/Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.” Her quick response with her nail in the face of this man’s elaborate plea suggests her response to his final assertion as well.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

The poem presents a dramatic exchange between two people that has the feel of spontaneity and witty repartee. The drama, wit, and immediacy are parts of its device. As a seventeenth century poem, a metaphysical poem, the work manifests certain qualities characteristic of the age and of this type of poetry. The metaphysical poets, of whom John Donne is the chief exemplar, wrote in a style reactive to the earlier generation of poets, chiefly the Elizabethan sonneteers writing love poems in the manner of the Italian, Petrarch. While Donne, does, at times, reflect Petrachian themes and forms, more often, he revolts against the conventional, artificial, and restrictive qualities of these poems, preferring to draw analogies from the concrete world and explore heretofore unmentionable aspects of love. He reflects not only a new approach to poetry but a new orientation of mind in that he, as well as other seventeenth century thinkers, was drawn away from philosophic concerns of why to scientific concerns of how. Thus he looks not to the traditional metaphors of love poems but, instead, looks to the everyday world for effective correlatives of experience. He prefers the mundane, contemporary analogies to the lofty and other worldly—thus, the flea. Further, he couches his poetic figures in diction and syntax that sound like conversation.

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.

Intellect and logical reasoning shape the poems. Here, the flea presents itself as an ideal comparison enabling this clever lover to demonstrate his ingenuity in creating a logical, albeit specious, argument. However a specious argument is not the nor for Donne or the metaphysical poets. The norm is logic, a movement from premise to conclusion. Here, as always, Donne uses and demands intellectual acuity.

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Themes