John Donne

The Flea by John Donne

‘The Flea’ by John Donne is the poet’s most famous poem. In it, he uses one of his brilliant conceits to convince his love to sleep with him.

However, her gestures and attitudes are brought out by references to them on the part of the lover. In the very first line of ‘The Flea,’ the poet-lover asks his beloved to observe the flea carefully. She should notice that first, it sucked his blood and then hers, and in this way, their blood mingles in its body, as they do in sexual intercourse. The flea has enjoyed union with her, without any courtship or marriage. Yet this is not considered any loss of honour; there is neither any sin, nor shame, nor loss of virginity in it. In this respect, the flea is superior to them. She can do, i.e. enjoy the pleasure of physical union, which the lovers cannot enjoy prior to marriage.


Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

Yet this enjoys before it woo,

And pampered swells with one blood made of two,

And this, alas, is more than we would do.

The poet in the poem, ‘The Flea’ by John Donne, asks his beloved to observe the flea carefully and mark that what she denies to him is not of much significance. The flea sucked her blood and then sucked his. In this way, in its body, their respective blood are mixed up. She must acknowledge that this mingling of their blood in the body of the flea is neither sin, nor shame, nor loss of virginity.

But the flea has enjoyed her without any wooing or courtship, and its body is now swelled up with the enjoying of their respective blood, which now mingles in its body. The body regrets that such direct enjoyment and consummation is not possible for human beings.

The meaning of the very first word “Marke” is to observe carefully, while the use of the word “union” in the second line means the physical union which she has denied to him has been accomplished in the body of the flea. That is; all her shrinking from his advances has been of little avail to her. In the sixth line of the stanza, with the use of the word like maidenhead, he means to indicate the virginity of the beloved, whereas the meaning of line like: “With one blood made of two,” he means to be talking about their respective blood which mingle and become one in the body of the flea.


Stanza Two

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our mariage bed, and marriage temple is;

Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,

And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

Though use make you apt to kill me,

Let not to that, self-murder added be,

And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

The beloved must not kill the flea because in its body they are more than married, for in its body her blood and his blood are mingled. Therefore, not only is the body of the flea, their wedding temple, but it is also their bridal bed. Their blood mingles in the body of the flea as they mingle in the sex-act, despite the objections of her parents and her own objections. They have been isolated from the world and have met in privacy within the four walls which make up its body.

She should not kill the poor creatures, for it would be triple murder. She would kill the flea, as well as the poet whose blood it has sucked. It will also be a self-murder which is prohibited by religion. The killing of the flea would be sin and sacrilege; it would be three murders in one. In the second stanza, when the poet says, “Oh stay”, he means to say as the beloved gets ready to kill the flea, while the meaning of the word three lives is the life of the flea, of the lover and the beloved herself.


Stanza Three

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

Wherein could this flea guilty 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 weaker now;

’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:

Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,

Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

As the beloved kills the flea, the lover calls her cruel and rash. She has purpled her nails with the blood of the innocent flea. What was the fault of the poor creature, except that it had sucked a drop of her blood? The beloved is triumphant and says that neither she nor her lover is in any way weaker for having killed it. This is perfectly true. From this, she should learn that her fears of losing her honor through yielding to the advances of her lover are false.

Just as she has lost little life in the death of the flea which sucked her blood, so she will lose honor in yielding herself to him. When the poet says: “Purpled thy naile”, he means to say that the beloved has actually killed the flea and thus purpled her nails with innocent blood.

And when he says: “’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:” he means to be saying that since she has not lost any honor from the flea’s sucking her blood, she should not fear that she should lose any honor from yielding to her lover, while the meaning of words like: “Will waste” means will be lost.


John Donne’s Originality

The poem, ‘The Flea’ by John Donne is one of the best lyrics of Donne’s poems. Flea was a very popular subject for ribald and amatory poetry during the Renaissance. In this respect, the Renaissance poets imitated Ovid who has a poem on the subject. Such poets envied the flea for it had a free excess to the body of the beloved, but such excess was denied to them. Donne’s originality lies in the fact that his interest is not primarily in the flea, but in the exploration of love-relationship. He emphasizes the need for physical union, but physical love merges with the spiritual. The lyric has an intensity and immediacy of emotion, which distinguished it from other poems on the subjects.


Basic Conceit in The Flea

In of his most renowned conceits, Donne compares the body of the flea to a temple and a marriage-bed. As the beloved makes ready to kill the flea, the lover asks her to stay and not to kill the poor creature. Their two types of blood have been united together in its body, as they are united through marriage in a church. So, its body is a temple in which they have been married. The respective blood of the lover and the beloved mingle through sexual intercourse. Now they have mingled in the flea, so its body is their marriage-bed. They meet in the privacy of its body, despite the objections of her parents and her own objections. She must not kill the flea, for the act would not merely be cruelty to which she is used. It will be a sin, a sacrilege. It would be a triple murder. Donne’s use of religious terms for the trivial act of killing a flea imparts a peculiar intensity and immediacy to his desire for physical union with his beloved.


Attitude towards Love

By the third stanza, the beloved has already killed the innocent flea. Yet, the innocent creature was guilty of no other crime except that of the sucking of their respective blood. The beloved herself admits that the loss of a drop of blood which the flea sucked has in no way made her weak. She has also lost no honor in this way. Since she would lose as little blood in physical union with him as she lost in her physical contact with the flea, it follows that she would also lose as little honor. Therefore, she must not hesitate to yield herself up to him.

Thus, like a clever lawyer Donne has argued his point home. He has demolished the conventional Petrarchan attitude towards love, as well as the false notions of honor and chastity, and demonstrated that even true, spiritual love has its basis in physical union.

The body and the soul must be satisfied. It may also be condemned as, “Cynical and unpleasant”, but we are inclined to agree with

Overall, ‘The Flea’ is a remarkable lyric, remarkable for its realism, for its emotional intensity, and for the ingenuity with which Donne has argued the case for physical union without any social inhibitions.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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