Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

“The Flea” is a love poem with a difference. It reflects a new approach toward poetry. Its unconventional analogy, it extensive exploration of the subject to serve as a logical argument, and it playful intellectual tone give it fresh, even revolutionary qualities that made it appealing in its day. Donne exerted a strong influence on his contemporaries, was studied by Dr. Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, admired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the nineteenth century, and became an important influence on twentieth century poets, especially the poet and critic, T. S. Eliot. John Donne has always had an important place in the canon of English literature.

“The Flea” was written by a man who was not a professional poet but a man who initially wrote poems as a small part of a full and busy life, circulating them in manuscript to his social circle—a group of sophisticated, intellectual friends, and to his patronesses. His poems like this one explore the many moods and experiences of love—the hopeful, the philandering, the angry, the thwarted love. Later they explore secure and happily married love and, even later, religious love. This work in many ways typifies Donne’s poems. It has the colloquial or conversational tone. It, like many of his poems, addresses his current love. It clearly delights in it own paradox and wit. It is structured and formal but explodes that form, here with direct address and exclamation. The poem, like others, proceeds with logic challenging the reader to follow his reasoning which reflects scientific, political, and religious themes or ideas of the day.

Like poets before and after him, Donne employs analogy, but like other intellectuals of the seventeenth century, he is imbued with the significance of the everyday world within one’s perceptions in contrast to his predecessors imbued with the spiritual world or the classical world outside of immediate perception. Thus he creates analogies from objects of daily use or observation: the flea, or in other poems, a mandrake root, angels, a compass, a globe, fighting armies. Yet, despite his interest in the concrete and the contemporary, his poems reflect the conflicting claims of both the flesh and the spirit. His analogies so often strikingly unusual show his attempts to understand and express the conflicted nature of humankind. The content of the poem may, as in this poem, become the explanation of the analogy. The analogy may, at other times, be employed to reflect a state of mind. The poems are purposeful.

The poem points out the many purposes, tones, and methods of poetry. It acquaints us with a clear, individualized voice, the poetic possibility of a facetious tone, a dramatic, playful love situation. It demonstrates the use of logic, subtle, perceptive observation of the world and a colloquial style—all elements that have been influential to poets over the years but especially to Donne’s contemporaries and to the poets of the twentieth century.

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