Analysis of John Donne’s The Flea
Phillip Hassoun English 1102 Dr. Thomason 03/14/12 Analysis: The Flea, By: John Donne Most of John Donne’s work during his time frame was usually seen as being vulgar or too much, usually for the sexual themes he put behind them. But being the witty and clever author John Donne was, it is by no surprise that most people raise their eye brows after reading his poem titled The Flea. In the poem, he makes the unusual connection between a flea and sex between couples. Using a metaphysical conceit, the poem is written using that relationship in mind, which today most people would see as kind of funny or odd.
In this unique comparison, he ultimately try’s to persuade his beloved to become fearless of the consequences in pre-marital sex. It is important to understand the use of metaphysical writing, and how it enabled writers like John Donne to write so well about two very seemingly different things. When the term metaphysical is used, it is referring to a very powerful form of philosophy dating back to Aristotle. It is used to explain something usually complex in simple to understand terms, by making a comparison. One does this by asking themselves two questions; what is there?
And what’s it like? These two questions lead the person into a higher level thinking proses, which usually end up in a form of descriptive writing like parables and poems to add ever more understanding and emotion to the thought. This is how authors like John Donne can write of comparisons between something simple like a flea, and something as complex as the emotions we feel. However, the poem to most people today would still not make sense. But when considering the knowledge and ethics of the people during his time frame, this poem makes much more sense.
When John Donne’s 16th century love poem was written, it was believed that when two people had sex, the partners would share each other’s blood. Also hygiene wasn’t a very big issue, since it wasn’t common knowledge to know that bacteria and viruses could make you sick or more obviously that people didn’t share blood during sex. Due to lack of hygiene, people during this time all had some sort of human flea that lived on them, which ate their blood. The people from this time frame really didn’t see it as something gross like people would see today.
Because everybody had fleas on them, they were all equally as gross to each other in their minds. When John Donne is trying to persuade his beloved into sex with him, this is how he comes up with a metaphysical connection between the two, which is also a perfect example of why people thought he was coarse or dirty in his writing. Keeping this knowledge in mind as you read the poem is crucial in order to understand the poem. In the first stanza he begins to set up his argument with the girl he is addressing.
Using the metaphysical conceit he makes between a flea and sex he writes to his beloved, explaining why he thinks she should have no reason to be worried about having sex with him. “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little you denist me is;” He says to open the poem. Look at how small this flea is, that’s how small the fact of why you won’t have sex with me is, to reword what he is saying. Describing how little the issue is as he goes on in the first stanza. He says that the flea can suck his blood, and then jump to the girls and suck her blood, and share all three of the souls in one body.
Then says that by doing so, the flea is not causing “A sin, nor shame, not loss of maidenhead;” (1: pg. 571) talking about her virginity. He describes the nature of the flea to enjoy the mixing of blood from humans before it is in love, or without care at all since it is a flea. He finishes the argument at the end of the stanza by saying to his beloved that the flea, is doing far worse than what only they would be doing. He continues in the second stanza by trying to protect the flea’s life from the girl.
It is understood from the reading that his beloved has become obviously upset with what he said, and so she attempts to kill the flea in spite of him. To prevent her from doing so, he starts to explain to her that the flea is carrying three souls inside it, him, her, and the flea. And reiterates how the flea is doing far more than them even if they are to be married, since it shares all three souls. He says that since there blood is mixed with inside the flea, to look at the flea as their “marriage temple” and their custom right to properly have sex, since their blood is already mixed.
And furthermore says that although your parents urge you to not get married to me, we already have inside the living soul of the flea. He then in the last parts of the second stanza states his second argument for why they should have pre-marital sex. “Though use make you apt to kill me,” (1: pg. 172) hysterically saying that she wouldn’t mind killing him. He argues that although she wants to kill the flea, doing so would mean killing herself, himself, and the flea.
An odd way of explaining that there mutual love would die, and the fleas love for both would also die, which would be sacrilegious by killing all three souls. As he continues to make this unconvincing argument to his beloved, she kills the flea at the beginning of the third stanza, probably from his almost mockingly sounding poem about a big step in their relationship. However it is at that point when he turns the argument on her completely. “Cruel and sudden,” he describes her actions as she kills the flea. Saying that the flea was only innocent, and only was guilty for was stealing two drops of blood.
By killing the flea that shared the couple’s blood, he asks her if she feels as if their relationship is weaker. Obviously not feeling like their relationship had grown apart, he then completely switches the argument on her, after destroying their “wedding temple,” By saying that he taught her a lesson of fear. He explains further in the end of the last stanza that the honor she lost in killing that flea, would be just as much honor lost if she were to engage in intercourse with him, since she obviously did not care about the death of the flea.
He reiterates in his last statements that he is doing the exact same thing as the flea that took life from her. This concludes his not so romantic poem, but very interesting explanation of their situation. John’s poem is written in a clever way, unlike most of the poems people would read from Shakespeare’s century. He makes a good metaphysical connection between the flea and sex, and almost sounds like he denies the fact that he is really just trying hook up with her. If any girl was to be read this poem as a pickup line, and understand it, then they would probably be offended.
This is why the poem cannot be read far too seriously when he explains that the important subject of losing your virginity can be compared to the instinct of a flea, and dooms the poem to have you chuckling while you read it. However, when he ties everything up in the final stanza it turns into an eye opening poem. This was a very ingenious way to explain the feelings of the man in a relationship. The one who is trying to get the girl in the bed, but she fears all of the consequences.
The connection he made between something as small and irrelevant as a flea being described into a deep elaborate though about love, and man’s thoughts just show his great writing skill. Works Cited Page Barnet, Sylvan, William Burto, and William E. Cain. A Little Literature: Reading/writing and Argument. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007. Print. “John Donne “The Flea” and Persuasion” StudyMode. com. 10 2011. 10 2011 <http://www. studymode. com/essays/John-Donne-The-Flea-And-Persuasion-807235. html>.