Poetry Analysis: The Flea, by John Donne

Julie Renee Phelan By Julie Renee Phelan, 15th Nov 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/brwge49m/
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The poet closes, “Just so much honor, when you yeeld’st to mee (26), Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee” (27). When you yield to me, give me sex, you will lose no more honor than when you killed that martyred flea. No, that flea cannot be me.

Poetry Analysis: The Flea, by John Donne

The Flea is a love song bordering on the absurd. This flea is used to assist the poet in making his case for sex. The poem alternates metrically between lines in iambic tetrameter and lines in iambic pentameter, a four and five stress line, respectively. The poem ends with two pentameter lines at the close of each stanza. Thus, the stress pattern in each of the three stanzas is 454545455. Each stanza consists of nine lines. The rhyme scheme is in couplets with the final line in each stanza rhyming with the final couplet. The rhyming pattern is as follows AABBCCDDD.

In the first stanza, through one sophisticated conceit, John Donne plays with gender. Where the seducing male and seduced female unite and become one only after being sucked by this flea. This stanza begins with “Marke but this flea, and marke in this,” punish this flea, and punish only this flea. “How little that which thou deny’st me is,” you deny my sexual advances which mean little to you (2). The flea “suck’d me first, and now sucks thee” (3). “And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee,” inside the flea, thier bloods are mingled (4). The mingling of the blood cannot be “A sinne, nor shame, nor losse of maidenhead,” a sin, or shame, or lose of maidenhood (6).

Within the flea is the trinity. The trinity represents the three persons of the godhead; god, divine nature or essence, and deity. The three persons of Godhead as conceived in orthodox Christian belief include the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which constitutes one God, the triune God. The number three throughout the poem works as a symbol of “all in one.” The three anatomical sections; head, thorax, and abdomen of the flea should be noted as well.

“Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,” this flea enjoys life before it laments or mourns on an exclamation of grief or a distressful incident of affliction (7). In a prophetic or denunciatory utterance, the flea “wooe” is a condition of misery and misfortune, a grievous and sorrowful state of mind and feeling (7). The “wooe” of the flea may reference the pains of hell (7). The word “wooe” in a formal or public announcement is a declaration and proclamation announcing evil in the manner of a threat (7). The usage of “wooe” refers to an anathema or curse derived from the ecclesiastical Greek and Latin (7). A “wooe” is anything accursed or consigned to damnation and perdition (7). The “wooe” is the curse of God, a great curse of the church, cutting off said person from the communion of the church visible, and formally handing them over to Satan, denouncing any doctrine or practice as damnable (7). To “Wooe” is to denounce with imprecation divine wrath against alleged impiety and heresy, theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the Catholic or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church or by extension, to that of any church, creed or religious system, considered orthodox (7). “Wooe” is a curse or imprecation generally (7). This flea enjoys life before it laments its path to perdition.

This flea “pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,” lavished with attention, comfort and kindness, spoiled with luxury and brought up with kindness. This flea becomes larger in bulk or size with blood made of both (8). The flea has joined them together in a way that, “alas, is more than we would do” (9). The poet expresses pity, grief and sorrow for this flea. The poet exclaims this flea has sinned more than us if we should be so incline to engage in the act of sex.

This act of sucking takes place prior to seduction and erection, it accentuates the attainment of gratification before the more overtly and traditionally male patterns of sexual stimulation indicated by "woo" and "pampered” and “swells" (7, 8). Therefore, the poem changes its motion of desire and lingers a moment on sexual pleasure akin to orgasm, where sucking and fucking take priority over the more apparent order from solicitation to swelling and copulation to fulfillment. What the flea specifically "enjoys" is the pleasure of sucking both male and female bodies. Through the interpolation "alas," partially, the poet sadly indicates that the flea can do more than he can do. Thus, through the intricacy of a single sophisticated conceit, John Donne subconsciously associates himself both with the female body and with a kind of hermaphroditic erogenous pleasure, revealing his deeply hidden sense of identity and gender.

In the second stanza, the poet to his beloved asks, “Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,” as she moves to kill the flea, the poet asks her to stop, and requests that she spare the three lives in this flea (10). The three lives include his, hers, and this fleas. It may be inferred that the three lives represent the father, mother and baby. The poet makes another analogy, “Where wee almost, yea more than maryed are” (11). The poet argues that since their blood is mingled within this flea, they are almost, no more than married. “This flea is you and I,” this flea has both our blood (12). This flea is “Our marriage bed, and marriage temple,” our sex and religion (13).

The poet acknowledges, “Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met” (14). Although our parents begrudge, show dissatisfaction and are reluctant towards are romantic relationship, and your decision to not make love, “cloysterd in these living walls of Jet” (15). Even though our parents grumble with dissatisfaction towards are romance, and you will not make love, enclosed within this flea is a place of religious seclusion, a womb for a monastery or convent, and in that place of religion we are united as one.

The poet to his beloved enlightens, “Though use make you apt to kill me,” though you are probably going to kill me (16), “Let not to that, selfe murder added bee,” he asks that she not also kill herself (17). The words “kill me” refers to her coldness, or perhaps to the sexual meaning of die (16). “And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three,” and by killing the poet and herself, she will commit three sins of stealing and misappropriating what is consecrated, that which is dedicated to a sacred and sanctified purpose (18). Since the flea is a temple of religion, should she kill this flea?

To kill the poet, herself or the flea is to commit an outrage and violation of an obligation having a sacramental character recognized under special protection. To kill is to commit the sin of avarice, an inordinate desire of greediness, cupidity. To kill is to commit the sin of cupidity, an inordinate longing or lust, covetousness. To kill is to commit the sin of covetousness, a strong or inordinate desire of destroying that which belongs to another or to which one has no right. No, this cannot be, it is “three sinnes in killing three” (18).

In the third and final stanza, the poet calls his lover “Cruell and sodaine, hast thou since,” cruel and sudden, your actions have taken (19). The reference to his lover as “cruell” means she is disposed to inflicting and taking pleasure in the flea’s pain and distress including death (19). The poet has redefined this flea. The flea has become a representation of his own pain that he has suffered because of her denial of sex. Through her denial, she has been destitute of kindness or compassion, mercy and pity. She is hard-hearted the cruel one. Her cool denial in satisfying his sexual needs have been cruelly distressing, savage and severe and strict. Similar to the flea, she has acted towards him without delay and at once in denying him the pleasures of sex.

The poet to his beloved presents rhetorical questions, “Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence,” have you stained your soul in blood of innocence? (19) Have you damned yourself to hell by martyring this flea? “Wherein could this flea guilty bee (20), Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?” (21) What else could this flea be of sin, except sucking a drop of blood from you?

The poet to his beloved says, “Yet thou triumph’st and saist that thou (23)/ Find’st not thy selfe, nor mee the weaker now” (24). The lover retorts, “Celebrating my triumphal victory in killing this flea so you say, makes neither yourself nor I less noble.”

The poet responds, “Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee” (25). It is true, learn how false your fears can be. Her false fears stem from erroneous ideas of peril and damnation for engaging in the act of sex. The poet closes, “Just so much honor, when you yeeld’st to mee (26), Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee” (27). When you yield to me, give me sex, you will lose no more honor than when you killed that martyred flea. No, that flea cannot be me.

Work Cited:

Fletcher, Anthony. Gender, Sex and Subordination in England, 1500-1800. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1995.

Hunt, Clay. Donne’s Poetry: Essays in Literary Analysis. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954.

Shawcross, John T., comp. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967.

Rambuss, Richard. "Pleasure and Devotion: The Body of Jesus and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric." Queering the Renaissance. Ed. Jonathan Goldberg. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000.


England, Johns Donne, Poetry Analysis, Poetry Summary, Renaissance, The Flea

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author avatar Julie Renee Phelan
I have attended Central Washington University, University of Hawaii, Oregon State University, California State University at Long Beach, University of California at Los Angeles, Cabrillo Community College, University of California at Santa Cruz, Univ...(more)

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author avatar Rahma
12th May 2011 (#)

thank you for your wounderful work, ireally took many advantages from reading this essay

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author avatar Zahra
2nd Jun 2011 (#)

Thank you so much for your great analysis of this beautiful poem. I enjoyed it! Hope You add the analysis of "The Canonization" to your wonderful selection.

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author avatar Seraphine apana
27th Oct 2011 (#)

am very grateful to you for such a wonderful analysis.

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author avatar Fritson agbu
11th Nov 2011 (#)

thanks for your inspiring analysis.

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