The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 408 words.)