John Donne The Flea Essay Help

The speaker uses the occasion of a flea hopping from himself to a young lady as an excuse to argue that the two of them should make love. Since in the flea their blood is mixed together, he says that they have already been made as one in the body of the flea. Besides, the flea pricked her and got what it wanted without having to woo her. The flea’s bite and mingling of their bloods is not considered a sin, so why should their love-making?

In the second stanza the speaker attempts to prevent the woman from killing the flea. He argues that since the flea contains the “life” of both herself and the speaker, she would be guilty both of suicide and a triple homicide in killing it.

The woman in question is obviously not convinced, for in the third stanza she has killed the flea with a fingernail. The speaker then turns this around to point out that, although the flea which contained portions of their lives is dead, neither of them is the weaker for it. If this commingling of bodily fluids can leave no lasting effect, then why does she hesitate to join with him in sexual intimacy? After all, her honor will be equally undiminished.


Donne here makes use of the wit for which he eventually became famous—although in his own day his poetry was often considered too lurid to gain popular notoriety, and little of it was published during his lifetime. One of his earlier poems, “The Flea,” demonstrates his ability to take a controlling metaphor and adapt it to unusual circumstances. “The Flea” is made up of three nine-line stanzas following an aabbccddd rhyme scheme.

He begins the poem by asking the young woman to “Mark this flea” (line 1) which has bitten and sucked blood from both himself and her. He points out that she has “denied” him something which the flea has not refrained from enjoying: the intimate union of their bodily fluids (in this case, blood). This commonplace occurrence, he argues, “cannot be said/A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead” (lines 5-6); if this tiny commingling of the two people is not wrong, then how can a greater commingling be considered evil or undesirable? He even points out that the flea is able to enjoy the woman’s essence “before he woo” (line 7), the implication being that he need not court the woman in order to enjoy her sexual favors.

In the second stanza the poet argues for the life of the flea, as his desired lady has made a move to kill it. He paints the flea as a holy thing: “This flea is you and I, and this/Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is” (lines 12-13). (Note also the reference to the Christian concept of "three lives in one" (line 10), suggesting that a spiritual union already exists, although unlike a spiritual marriage in a "marriage temple," the third being in the trio is not God but a flea.) Besides arguing for the sanctity of the flea’s life, the speaker is also arguing that he and the lady have already bypassed the usual vows of fidelity and ceremony of marriage; thus, he pushes toward his point that the two of them have already been joined as one in the flea, so there is no harm in joining their bodies in sexual love.

There is a hint that he has already attempted to gain the lady’s favors and failed, either through her response or that of her parents: “Though parents grudge, and you,” (line 14) he says, suggesting that even her opinion does not matter anymore. The flea has already “cloister’d” them within its body’s “walls of jet” (line 15, possibly also suggesting that they are alone together in a dark room). The woman’s disdain for him and his suit becomes more apparent as he claims she is “apt” to kill him (line 16), following her habit of killing fleas, but he offers that she should refrain from harming the flea because in so doing she would add suicide (“Let not to that self-murder added be” line 17) by destroying the vessel holding her blood. In fact, he says, she would be guilty of “sacrilege, three sins in killing three” (line 18) since his own blood is there too.

He fails in his defense of the flea, for she has “purpled” her finger with the flea's blood by the opening of the third stanza (line 20). It is a “sudden” but perhaps inevitable betrayal of an innocent being. The woman claims triumph over the lover's argument, responding that neither she nor the man is weaker for her having killed the flea (lines 23-24). In this way she attempts to unravel the speaker’s argument that the flea represents a sacred bond between them; the flea is simple to kill and nothing has been lost, and the single drop of blood will not be missed. Thus there is no reason to have sex.

The poet, however, is quick-witted enough to turn her argument back against her: if the death of the flea, which had partaken of just a tiny amount of their life-essences, is virtually no problem, despite his pretended fear, then any fear she might have about her loss of honor is equally a “false” fear. The act of physical union would cause virtually no serious harm to her reputation. That is, as much as she lost to the flea, “Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me, / Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee” (lines 26-27). He thus returns to his original argument from the first stanza: the flea’s intimate contact with the woman has caused her no harm, so a physical encounter with the poet will cause no harm either.

Although the lover suggests that he is in control and that it is a matter of "when thou yield'st," some feminist scholars have noted that he is powerless to do anything until the woman makes her decision. He merely utters his words of warning, but she can raise her hand and kill the flea; similarly, she can exercise her power by continuing to deny the man his desires. The flea could take what it wanted without stopping to woo, but the lover uses no force beyond the force of argument. He has not been successful so far, but we do not know what will happen next.

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Metaphysical Poetry and Conceits

3. Virginity, Sexuality and Seduction in Conceits
3.1 The Wit of Conceit in „The Flea”
3.2 The Wit of Conceit in “To His Coy Mistress”
3.3 Similarities and Differences of Donne’s and Marvell’s Poetry

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Works Cited
5.2 Appendix

1. Introduction

How are poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell able to write about an apparent theme that offers a completely different profound meaning if the reader scrutinizes the poem? What does the metaphysical author really intent to say with his poem? In this term paper I try to answer these questions and a lot more.

First I have to clarify what metaphysical poetry and conceits are. For that reason I want to give a short overview of the 17th century, the main issues of that time and who were leading poets. Moreover, I will point out the characteristics of conceits, which are explained in more detail in the course of this paper, using the example of two poems. Then I will give a short analysis of these poems called “The Flea” by John Donne and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. This analysis will be extended to an in-depth analysis of the conceits (type, style of writing, theme, etc.), but I will merely concentrate on the most salient aspects, which are connected to virginity, sexuality or seduction, because a whole analysis would break the mould. In a next step I will introduce an analysis of similarities and differences of Donne’s and Marvell’s literature, having a look at the poets’ background, because I expect some astounding coherences with the theme of the poems. At last, I will summarise all my results in a conclusion. For all my suppositions I will consult a lot of secondary literature to prove my ideas and results.

2. Metaphysical Poetry and Conceits

Metaphysical poetry denominates a literary movement in the 17th century and is part of the period of Baroque, represented by Donne, Marvell and other famous poets. Johnson “remarks of them that 'the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together'.” (Eliot 43). The book Englische Literaturgeschichte helps to define metaphysical poetry more precisely: A major topic is religion, even more frequently there is only love poetry, which is commonly very sensuous and drastic in marked contrast to metaphysics but yet is a central theme for the poets of that time. The arguments in the poems are usually selected for a matter of changeover or cajolery procedure. Marvell and Donne compress erotic ideas in conceits, what means that elements of two widely separated fields of reality are trenchantly copped. The conceits are often actually seeking for darkness and mystery. This technique is also called “strong lined” (Seeber 109). But even in the century of Donne and Marvell the pictorial language was treated depreciatory. The poets seem affected and as if their uppermost aim is to impress the people by presenting their wit. Metaphysical poetry can be seen as a break with the conventionalised Elizabethan poetry. The School of Donne, who was denominated the father of metaphysical poetry, is featured by an emphatic, impetuous way of speech, often colloquial and of an appellative nature. It is essential for the poets to avoid a sophisticated choice of language as effectively as possible. The issues are provocative; most poems deal not with love as a feeling but with physical desires and the premarital act of love-making, some even canonise the sexual intercourse. Love will be materialised, which is absolutely against all English traditions of that time (Seeber 108-110). The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory gives the marks of metaphysical poetry: “conceits (showing a preoccupation with analogies between macrocosm and microcosm), wit, ingenuity . . . a linking for paradox and dialectical argument” (Cuddon 508). The essence of metaphysical poetry is the intellectual delectation; the poets often merge secular ideas and colloquial language with witty subtleness.

A proper definition of conceits is provided by W. R. Moses. He says that a conceit is “a passage which causes imaginative shock, usually through the stated or clearly implied linkage of things or ideas from different associational categories” (19). That implies that the concept of the poem, the basic idea, cannot be perceived without understanding the conceit, which is often extended to the whole poem. The categories the images are taken from must be so contradictory that the reader is surprised, even shocked. The imaginative distance decelerates apprehension (Moses 8), therefore we can also speak of “bold metaphors”, like Bode does in his book Einführung in die Lyrikanalyse (94). Conceits are often decorated by series of linked metaphors and they are the figures of wit (The Cambridge Companion 105). There are many different kinds of conceits, typical for the 17th century. They range from sonneteering conceits over jealousy and inventory of blazon conceits to carpe diem conceits (Cuddon 165-170), which are also sometimes called “persuasion-to-love” (Stocker 203) conceits. In this term paper I will concentrate on the carpe diem conceit Marvell uses, which is featured by “the appeal to the mistress not to delay loving because beauty fades and time is a devourer” (Cuddon 166) and the metaphysical conceit of John Donne’s “The Flea”.

3. Virginity, Sexuality and Seduction in Conceits

3.1 The Wit of Conceit in „The Flea”

The theme of “The Flea”, a typical seduction poem, is very provocative for the 17th century. The speaker woos his mistress very subtle by comparing their sexual intercourse with the intermingling of both his and her blood in the flea’s body. He opens his argumentation with the observation of a flea which has sucked blood from him and afterwards from her. He assures her, that the flea’s vampirism is just as little a disgrace as the premarital sex he wishes with her. She is not impressed at all, so he regrets her coyness and equates the intermingling with their marriage, although he is primarily interested in a sexual get-together and not in a wedding. The speaker compassionates himself because he is not granted to enjoy the stitch and being swollen by the mistress’ blood like the flea. As she is still reluctant and only menaces to kill the flea, he steps up the pressure on her: He makes “the killing of the flea at once sacrilege, murder and suicide” (Nelly 83). If she kills the flea, not only the insect has to die but she also murders him and herself, because their vital blood is within this flea. “Sacrilege” (“The Flea” l. 18) raises the insect to a religious sign for their marriage and emphasises the shame related with its homicide. The speaker makes her behaviour a sin and so he tries to compensate her anxiety of a sexual intercourse. He tells her that the loss of her maidenhood is as trivial as the loss of life she suffered from killing the flea. His clincher is that if even such a primitive creature like a flea is allowed to get pleasure from her blood, why shouldn’t he? He equals the mixture of blood in the flea with their marriage and the subsequent sexual intercourse. Concomitantly he minimizes the incident of copulation and especially of virginity, hence mocks her coyness.

In the 17th century it was believed that copulation is nothing other than the mixture of blood inside the woman (Roston 110). The whole brilliancy and subtleness of the poem is constituted by the speaker “applying the same arguments to the moral as to the physical side of life” (Nelly 83), because he says that the mixture of blood already happened and it does not matter where it happened, whether in the flea or within the mistress. He considers that it would be ridiculous now not to sleep together in reality. Moreover he conceives the opinion that the flea only does what is in his nature, so it is not to blame, just as little as the couple if it would copulate (Roston 110).

Donne is obviously witty; he plays around with the image of a flea to seduce a woman. This metaphysical conceit is a typical stylistic device Donne uses and most modern for that time (Bald 62). He searches for far-fetched analogies to build bold metaphors. Nobody would ever think about a flea if he wants to seduce a woman, but Donne builds up his conceit by the amalgamation of two far-fetched categories: one of the lowest forms of insects and sexuality. His poems are completely deliberated; he is always “one step ahead of his reader” (Roston 110). Here he arranges traps for his mistress and the reader walks right into them in concern with her. If she falls into these traps, the speaker is in an excellent position to convince her to give him her virginity, because he destroys her moral doubts. The whole poem aims at this climax, is constructed to that effect (Roston 110-112).

3.2 The Wit of Conceit in “To His Coy Mistress”

The poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell was published in 1681, thus it is a metaphysical poem. It is divided into three sections whereby Marvell starts and finishes with a profane approach to time which is analogue to and bounded by lifetime (Kremen 94). The speaker philosophizes about time in relation to the mistress’ beauty in the first part. He would admit her all the years she needs to make up her mind and hopefully decide for him, if they had “world enough, and time” (“To His Coy Mistress“ l. 1). His debauchment is an exaggerated hyperbole. He would also admire every part of her beautiful body, praise her endlessly, he would accept her coyness, would even allow her to refuse and wait for her for all eternity. But since they haven’t got the luxury of thousands of years, the speaker becomes impatiently and steps up pressure on his mistress in the second part of the poem. He starts complaining that she grows old as time goes by and that her treasured virginity will only be loved by the worms in her grave if she dies. The time peruses them adamantly so why should they wait? She could save her virginity to the bitter end, but her life will be over before she knows it. The third part of the poem (starts with line 33) offers a solution to the problem of limited time, the persona finds back to his actual idea, the pleasure of lust. Here the speaker is in the opinion that the mistress would not lose any honour if they would sleep together, so he would prefer to make the most of now and simply take the opportunity to assuage their desire. He asks her not to waste any time but start loving right now as long as they are in their prime-age and capable of doing so. That is the typical leitmotif of the carpe diem poetry: seize the day and not detain anything, less than ever loving because beauty melts away and time elapses irrecoverable.


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