John Donne: The Flea

Considered pre-eminent amongst the Metaphysical Poets, John Donne’s regular conceits, clever use of metaphor and often sharp language mark him out not just as a poet of wit and cunning but also of innovation and charm speaking to the common man in the educated voice to which they could only aspire but yet still understand.

Prior to taking Holy Orders in middle-age and becoming Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral when his poetry still as beautiful and captivating nonetheless became increasingly more devotional Donne’s early verse reflected that preoccupation of all young men down the ages – young women.

And no poem in his rich Canon better captures the artifice and imagery for which he is justifiably famed than The Flea in which he stresses the mingling in its body of the blood of both he and the woman he seeks to seduce has already seen them co-joined and a similar sharing of more intimate fluids can be then no sin.

She remains reluctant but he perseveres – she intends to kill the flea but he warns her that to do so would be as suicide – she crushes it between her fingers, the flea is dead, but desire, the yearnings of love cannot be so easily extinguished.

The Flea

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sinne, nor shame, nor losse of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where wee almost, yea more than maryed are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and mariage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.
Though use make you apt to kill mee,
Let not to that, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.

Cruell and sodaine, hast thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and saist that thou
Find’st not thy selfe, nor mee the weaker now;
‘Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee

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