John Donne’s witty and outrageous poem “The Flea” is a classic example of the “metaphysical” school of poetry, with its argumentative tone and blend of amorous and intellectual elements. The flea, though apparently an unlikely subject for romantic poetry, had been previously used as an amorous conceit in English poetry. Robin Hamilton, in his edition of Donne’s Complete English Poems, notes that the tradition stretched back to a medieval poem, the “Carmen de pulice”, which was ascribed to the licentious Roman poet Catullus.
French poems on the subject could make us of the pun between “puce”, a flea, and “pucelage”, virginity.
Sex and Logic
“Mark but this flea, and mark in this/ How little that which thou deny’st me is”, Donne begins. The rest of the stanza makes it pretty clear what “that which thou deny’st me” is in this case: the poem’s speaker is trying to persuade his girlfriend to have sex with him. Rather than using extravagant declarations of love, or promises of eternal fidelity, the poem adopts a tone of ironically detached logic.
Inside a flea which has landed on both of them, Donne’s speaker declares, their blood has already been mixed. As well for standing for the blending of other fluids, this recalls the “one flesh” image which appears in the Bible and the marriage ceremony as a description of the link between a married couple.
This idea is made explicit in the next stanza, where the flea is described as “Our marriage bed, and marriage temple”. The speaker pleads with his mistress not to destroy this emblem of their union, with its sacred associations of marriage and their joint lives, but she apparently kills the flea. The words “kill” and “die” are ambiguous in Renaissance love poetry, since to “die” was slang for sexual climax. Donne manages to imbue even something so unromantic as killing an insect with an amorous frisson. (Though how effective this frisson is must depend on the reader’s response, of course. It could be seen as simply weird.).
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