English Literature
The Flea

The Flea

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

Exploring Devotion and Love: A Look into John Donne's 'The Flea'

In the late 16th century, the famous English poet John Donne penned 'The Flea' - a one-of-a-kind metaphysical poem that explores the themes of devotion and sexual love through the unconventional use of a flea as a conceit. Even though the poem was posthumously published in 1633, experts speculate that Donne had written it in his twenties while studying law at Lincoln's Inn.

An Overview of 'The Flea'

The speaker in 'The Flea' presents an argument, using a syllogism, in an attempt to persuade a woman to sleep with him. This logical and persuasive style is reflective of Donne's legal background. In his younger years, Donne was known for his relationships with young women and was even described by writer Richard Baker as a "frequent visitor of Ladies". This is evident in the poem's "seize the day" attitude.

As Donne grew older, he became the dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London and found inspiration in his Christian beliefs - which is apparent in the poem's references to concepts such as sacrifice and the Holy Trinity.

The Historical and Literary Context

Fleas were a common sight in 16th-17th century England and were even responsible for the great plague of 1665-1666. It was not uncommon for poets to draw inspiration from fleas, but Donne's use of the tiny insect as a symbol of love and devotion is original and unexpected.

'The Flea' is categorized as metaphysical poetry, along with the works of other renowned poets like George Herbert and Andrew Marvell. This literary movement of the 17th century is characterized by its use of wit, wordplay, and a blend of humor with serious topics.

The Metaphysical Elements of 'The Flea'

The use of the flea as a conceit, the combination of romantic love and religious faith, and the syllogistic argument all contribute to the poem's classification as a metaphysical work.

In metaphysical poetry, conceits - which are elaborate metaphors that compare two seemingly unrelated things - are commonly used. Donne's wit and wordplay, including puns, can also be seen in 'The Flea'.

The syllogistic thinking employed in metaphysical poetry, where conclusions are drawn from two separate premises, is also evident in 'The Flea'. The speaker's argument that the mingling of bodily fluids during sex is equivalent to already having had sex is a prime example of this.

An Analysis of 'The Flea'

The poem opens with the speaker urging the reader to take note of the flea and the mingling of their blood within it, symbolizing their union. The flea then becomes a representation of their marriage bed and temple, defying societal norms.

The speaker pleads for the flea's life, comparing it to their own intertwined lives. He warns against the sin of taking one's own life and sacrilege, while humorously pointing out the flaws in his own argument. The final line poses the question of whether the woman has killed the flea, symbolizing the innocence of their love.

The structure of the poem also reinforces its themes. Split into three stanzas, the use of the number three is evident throughout. The speaker claims that he, the woman, and the flea have become one, as 'three lives in one flea spare'. He also mentions the woman committing 'three sins', adding to the religious undertones. Additionally, three sites of spiritual union - the flea, the marriage bed, and the marriage temple - are referenced.

The rhyme scheme of the poem is AABBCCDDD, with each stanza consisting of nine lines. This structure creates a pattern of three rhyming couplets followed by a triplet, further emphasizing the significance of the number three. The alternating meter between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter also adds to the rhythmic flow of the poem.

The tone of 'The Flea' is both erotic and humorous. The speaker uses sexual imagery, particularly in the first stanza where he expresses his jealousy over the flea sucking on the woman's flesh and becoming swollen with 'one blood made of two', which can be interpreted as a phallic symbol. The speaker's attempts to convince the woman to sleep with him are comical, as his reasoning becomes more ridiculous in each stanza.

In true metaphysical poetry fashion, the speaker uses elaborate arguments to get what he desires.

The Power of Enjambment in John Donne's 'The Flea'

John Donne's masterpiece 'The Flea' employs a unique poetic technique known as enjambment, where lines overflow into the next without any punctuation breaks. This adds to the sense of urgency in the speaker's attempt to convince his lover to sleep with him. It also intensifies the sexual tension between the two, highlighting the speaker's desire for physical intimacy.

Themes of Love, Lust, and Manipulation

In 'The Flea', the themes of sex and desire take center stage as the speaker cleverly uses the concept of a flea sucking blood as a metaphor for sexual acts. He urges his lover to live in the moment and disregard any consequences, a popular idea in metaphysical poetry referred to as 'carpe diem'. The speaker also touches on religious themes, using the Holy Trinity to justify his argument that mixing bodily fluids is not a sin.

The Meaning Behind 'The Flea'

The speaker presents a complex and somewhat irrational argument, incorporating existential concepts like sin, death, and the nature of sexuality in an attempt to persuade his lover. However, it becomes evident that his ultimate motive is to sleep with her and he will use any means to convince her. The poem can be interpreted as a display of wit and wordplay, as well as a commentary on society's tendency to hide primal desires behind religious justification.

Key Takeaways from John Donne's 'The Flea'

  • The poem was written in the 1590s and published posthumously in 1633.
  • 'The Flea' masterfully combines erotic elements with humor, showcasing Donne's clever use of wit.
  • The speaker's argument highlights the human inclination to mask natural desires with religious meaning.
  • Donne's 'The Flea' is a prime example of metaphysical poetry, known for its wit, wordplay, and spiritual themes.
  • The poem utilizes a conceit, drawing a comparison between the bite of a flea and a sexual relationship.
  • The structure and rhyme scheme, with three stanzas of nine lines each, emphasize the poem's use of the number three as a symbol.

Why is 'The Flea' Classified as a Metaphysical Poem?

'The Flea' is considered a metaphysical poem because of its use of wit, wordplay, and intellectual themes. It also embodies the common metaphysical concept of 'carpe diem', urging the reader to seize the moment and indulge in physical pleasures. The poem's incorporation of a conceit and its complex argument further emphasize its place within the genre of metaphysical poetry.

Exploring John Donne's Metaphysical Poetry: A Closer Look at 'The Flea'

John Donne, a renowned poet from the 17th century, is often classified as a metaphysical poet, along with other writers who share similar styles. This term was first used by Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. One of Donne's most famous works, 'The Flea', is a prime example of metaphysical poetry, utilizing clever wit, and poetic wordplay to convey deeper spiritual themes. Like other metaphysical poems, 'The Flea' employs a literary device known as a conceit, which refers to an extended metaphor, to convey its message.

But what exactly happens to the flea in this poem? The insect is squashed by a woman whom the speaker is trying to seduce. The speaker reacts by questioning her sudden cruelty and wonders if she has stained her nails with the innocent blood of the flea. He then uses this situation to further persuade her to sleep with him, arguing that if the seemingly sinful act of crushing the flea had no negative repercussions ('thou / Find'st not thy self, nor me the weaker now'), then why should consensual sex be deemed as immoral?

Some argue that 'The Flea' presents a paradox, but it actually illuminates a flawed argument.

The Flawed Argument of Blood and Sex Equivalence in John Donne's "The Flea"

In John Donne's poem "The Flea," the speaker attempts to persuade the woman that their blood, mingled within a flea, is symbolic of their sexual union and thus they have already consummated their relationship. This argument follows a syllogistic structure, drawing a conclusion from two premises that share a common element. However, upon closer examination, this reasoning proves to be flawed and illogical.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime