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An Analysis of Poem “The Flea” by John Donne

The Flea is one of John Donne’s most popular erotic poems. It focuses on an insect that was a common nuisance in the Elizabethan period – the flea – and turns it into a sexual metaphor.

That such an irritating creature could be used to such good effect is a poetic triumph but it’s still not certain that, for all of Donne’s wit and ‘ribald humour’, the speaker succeeded in his sexual conquest.

This poem is all about a woman’s denial and the argument used by the speaker to overcome that and persuade her to make love to him. If a flea can suck blood from them both and mingle the two in one, surely it’s not too much to ask for them to get together in similar fashion?
In Elizabethan England it was very much the thing for poets to use a conceit, an argument, an extended metaphor which would allow a comparison to be made between diverse and often strange things. In this case a flea and love’s consummation.

John Donne wrote this poem when a young man, training to be a lawyer, so many scholars think it was written to impress his male friends. Later on in his life Donne became seriously involved in religion, eventually ending up as dean of St Paul’s cathedral, London, in 1621. This poem wasn’t published until 1633, two years after Donne’s death.

The Flea is structured to mirror the three protagonists, flea, man and woman, so there are three rhyming couplets, a triplet in each stanza and three stanzas.
In the first stanza the speaker is cool and logical and uses mostly plain, positive language to highlight the flea’s actions. The second stanza develops the argument by introducing religious and theological imagery and language. This boosts the flea’s importance. In the third stanza the speaker, aware that she has killed the flea, is close to admitting defeat. Or is he?

Note how the last three rhyming lines of each stanza cleverly strengthen and clarify the points made in the previous six lines.

This logical set up underpins the whole argument, whilst the relatively complex syntax (especially in the third stanza) means there are challenges for the reader when it comes to timing and meaning.

Metrically this poem has an iambic base but as shown later on in the analysis it is far from consistent. The lines alternate, octosyllabic (8 syllables) and decasyllabic (10 syllables) resulting in tetrameter and pentameter respectively.
A classic of its type, The Flea, a provocative and intimate drama, with psychological and theological elements, raises serious sexual and moral questions but does so in a darkly playful manner.

The male speaker spots the blood filled flea, she kills it; end of pursuit?

The Flea

Brief Analysis of The Flea

The Flea is a poem that takes the reader into the heart of an intimate space. Here sit a man and a woman, possibly on a bed, the man pointing out the presence of a flea, quite common in Renaissance times, the middle of the 16th century.

This tiny parasite has recently sucked blood from them both, as is their instinct, so the man takes this opportunity to put forward an argument for sexual union to the woman, based on the now swollen flea.

About the sucking of the flea: it’s all quite natural a process, no sin or shame or loss of virginity involved. That word maidenhead actually means hymen, so we can assume the woman is a virgin.

Their blood is mingled, a successful act for the flea who doesn’t have to bother with pleasantries, charm or promises (to woo). If only they could emulate the flea and mingle their own blood, that is, have sex.

The woman is about to kill the flea but is stopped by the man…Oh stay. He posits that the flea is sacred, a symbol of marriage, and that killing it would amount to sacrilege.

She ignores him. She’s having none of this religious symbolism or hyperbole. It’s interesting to note that she is silent throughout the poem yet is the one who has all the power. She kills the flea with her nail. Tiny act, huge consequences.

By killing the parasite the woman has effectively ended the argument, the man almost says as much…’thou triumph’st’…leaving them both on the bed as equals.

Yet, in the final three lines there seems to be a twist. The man admits she could be right…’Tis true’… but, in a last attempt to win her over…’when thou yield’st to me’… he says that only her honor will be lost, a trivial matter, just like the killing of the flea.

So the reader is left to ponder on the argument, to savour the mini-drama and to conclude that the outcome of this brief encounter will never be known.

What Is The Meaning of The Flea?

The Flea is a poem that is all about one man trying to get a woman to have sex with him. The woman is probably a virgin. In his attempt to persuade his would be lover the man focuses on a flea, a parasite that has sucked blood from them both.

He uses a logical argument (a conceit) to try and win her over. With their blood mingled now in the flea, the act being totally innocent, better not to kill it because that would be sacrilege.

When the woman does kill the flea, with her nail, he appears to admit that she’s won the game. But, in the last three lines he tries to turn the flea’s death to his advantage by claiming it is of no real consequence, just as is losing one’s virginity.

What Is The Rhyme Scheme of The Flea?
The Flea has a rhyme scheme of:

aabbccddd

Each stanza is made up of three couplets of rhyming pairs plus a rhyming triplet, making a total of 9 lines per stanza and 27 in total. Full rhyme bonds together meaning.

Most of the rhymes are full, for example: thee/be…said/maidenhead…woo/two/do.

There are subtle half-rhymes in lines 10/11 and 19/20 : spare/are…since/innocence.

And note the internal rhymes in lines 4 and 21:

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Wherein could this flea guilty be,

What Is The Religious Imagery in The Flea?

The Flea contains strong religious imagery in the second stanza. The speaker, having temporarily stopped his would be female lover from killing the flea – Oh stay – says they ‘more than married are’.

In addition, the flea is a symbol of the marriage bed and marriage temple (the human body being a temple of the Holy Spirit according to Paul in the bible, Corinthians 1).

Marriage is also one of the seven Catholic sacraments so to kill the flea would be an act of sacrilege, violation.

And that word cloistered comes from cloister, a covered walkway in a monastery.

The speaker is using these elevated terms in an ironic manner to try and convince the woman not to kill the flea and forego sex with him.

Other words relate to Christianity, for example, in the first stanza the speaker mentions that the sucking of blood by the flea ‘cannot be said / A sin’. This word becomes key in the second stanza, the speaker claiming that, should she crush the flea she will commit ‘three sins in killing three’.

Line by Line Analysis of The Flea

The Flea is a poem that retains character; it has humour, guile, irony and mystery and often sets modern teeth on edge. Who would think that such a lowly parasite could become a star of the erotic stage?

Yet Donne masterfully sets out his argument, the logical, calculating male speaker against the resistant female, with that tiny flea as catalyst and metaphor.

In Donne’s day fleas were everywhere and must have driven people crazy – from the poor peasant to the noble lady – anyone’s skin was an open invitation to the blood sucking flea.

Line 1

Pay careful attention to this flea, and also this,

Line 2

Really, it’s no great matter, yet you deny me;

Line 3

The flea sucked my blood first, and now sucks you,

Line 4

Therefore our two bloods mingle in the flea;

Line 5

And you know there is no way it could be called

Line 6

A sin, or shameful or loss of virginity,

Line 7

Yet the flea enjoys sucking without even wooing,

Line 8

It’s comfortably swollen with our blood, two into one,

Line 9

More than we can manage, regrettably.

Line By Line Analysis of The Flea – Stanza 2

Line 10

Stop, don’t kill the flea, it has three lives in one.

Line 11

A symbol of our togetherness, more than marriage.

Line 12

This flea is you and I

Line 13

And the marriage bed, the marriage temple;

Line 14

Even if parents grudge, and you, here we are,

Line 15

Sheltered in the living body of the flea.

Line 16

It’s the custom to kill me,

Line 17

But don’t kill yourselves too,

Line 18

Or violate a holy place (temple), three deaths is three times a sin.

Line By Line Analysis of The Flea – Stanza 3

Line 19

How cruel. So fast

Line 20

You’ve stained your nail with the flea’s blood?

Line 21

The flea, its one act of guilt,

Line 22

To suck a drop of blood from you?

Line 23

You win but you claim

Line 24

That we’re not undermined by its death;

Line 25

OK, but you have nothing to fear anyway;

Line 26

Only your honour, should you give way,

Line 27

Is at stake, and that’s hardly worth what the flea took from you in the first place.

What Are The Literary Devices used in The Flea?

Alliteration

When two proximate words start with the same consonant, adding interest to the texture and sound:

bloods mingled be…Thou know’st that this…we would…Where we…more than married…sacrilege, three sins…sudden, hast thou since…that thou…Tis true…false, fears…Will waste.

Conceit

An extended metaphor, often used in Renaissance times by poets and by Donne in particular. Two things are compared in a witty, ingenious or alternative way.

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is exaggeration and occurs in stanzas two and three:

Let not to that, self murder added be,

And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

What Is The Metre (Meter in USA) Used in The Flea?
The Flea is a difficult poem to scan easily because it has a variable metre (meter in American English) and Donne was well known ‘for not keeping of accent’ which basically means he didn’t like to produce steady, plodding iambic lines. He preferred to vary the metre.

Having said that, The Flea does have a predominantly iambic foot (daDUM daDUM) but many lines stray off into trochee and even spondee territory. A closer look at each line will clarify:

Mark but / this flea, / and mark / in this,
How lit / tle that / which thou / deniest / me is;
It sucked / me first, / and now / sucks thee,
And in / this flea / our two / bloods ming / led be;

The first four lines contain mostly iambic feet, tetrameter and pentameter, but lines 1 and 4 differ. Note the opening strong trochee (Mark but) in the first line and an energetic spondee (bloods mingled) in the fourth. Both alter the natural iambic beat.

Thou know’st / that this / cannot / be said
A sin, / nor shame, / nor loss / of maid / enhead,
Yet this / enjoys / before / it woo,
And pamp / ered swells / with one / blood made / of two,
And this, / alas, / is more / than we / would do.

The third couplet keeps the iambic beat, the enjambment maintaining the flow into the next line. The triplet is likewise iambic except for, interestingly, line 8 which echoes line 4 with a spondee (blood made) as next to last foot. Extra emphasis for the crucial idea of mingling blood.

Oh stay,/ three lives / in one / flea spare,
Where we / almost, / nay more / than marr / ied are.
This flea / is you / and I, / and this
Our marr / iage bed, / and marr / iage tem / ple is;
Though par / ents grudge, / and you, / w’are met,
And cloi / stered in / these liv / ing walls / of jet.

Two spondees are used in lines 10 and 11 to reinforce meaning: (flea spare…nay more). The remaining lines are iambic tetrameter and pentameter.

Though use / make you / apt to / kill me,
Let not / to that, / self-mur / der add / ed be,
And sac / rilege, / three sins / in kill / ing three.

Line 16 has two trochees (apt to kill me) which break the iambic flow suddenly whilst line 18 offers a spondee to focus on three sins being committed.

Cruel / and sud / den, hast / thou since
Purpled / thy nail, / in blood / of inn / ocence?
Wherein / could this / flea guil / ty be,
Except / in that drop / which it sucked / from thee?
Yet thou / triumph’st, / and say’st / that thou
Find’st not / thy self, / nor me / the wea / ker now;

Two trochees start the first and second lines, giving strong emphasis to those first syllables, establishing Cruel and Purpled as vital ingredients in this final stanza. Note the spondee in line 21 and the rhythmic anapaests in line 22 (in that drop which it sucked). Iambic feet in lines 23,24 but normality we suspect is hardly restored?

’Tis true; / then learn / how false, / fears be:
Just so / much hon / or, when / thou yield’st / to me,
Will waste, / as this / flea’s death / took life / from thee.

A spondee ends line 25 – strong energy involved here as the speaker makes his point. Then iambic calm returns with just that final spondee midway through the end line to remind the reader that the flea is dead and with it the speaker’s hope?