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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 633 words.)

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