The Flea, By John Donne

This is the original poem that made me decide to study literature, so it only feels appropriate to start this blog with this poem. The metaphysical era is rife with strange imagery, impossible paradoxes and odd metaphors. When first analysing it you feel as though you are going on some kind of strange trip- then you begin to understand it, and feel slightly uncomfortable at the elaborate wit and metaphors, and the elevation of physical love to a higher, spiritual plane of existence.

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that dares to explore the nature of reality, and deigns to ask the scarier questions such as, ‘Daddy, does god exist?’ And, ‘Is the non-physical phenomena of consciousness at all separate from the physical entity that is the brain, Mummy?’ While Mummy and Daddy tend to shy away from these questions with unforeseen cleverness such as the reply, ‘Yes-yes sweetie, now; stop asking stupid questions and eat your carrots.’

John Donne (1573-1631) did a particularly good job of exploring these themes, particularly that of ‘carpe diem’ or, ‘seize the day’, for those of you with only a rudimentary grasp of Latin. Donne was a classic example of the values of the Metaphysical period: he was a cleric for the Church of England, and lived in poverty for the majority of his life. When he did happen upon some cash, he tended to spend it on books, travel, and ladies. When he eventually got tired of being a holy playa of epic proportions (at the age of 28), he secretly married Anne More, and went on to have 12 children with her before she eventually died giving birth to their final child. After a less-than appropriate period of mourning, Donne succumbed to  pressure from King James I to become an Anglican priest (due to the executions of many of his Roman-Catholic family, many historians doubt Donne ever desired a connection to god in this way). In spite of any reservations he may have had, Donne soon earned a name for himself as an eloquent preacher and  accomplished writer. He is believed to have died of stomach cancer in 1631 at the ripe old age of 58.

Now, that’s just your basic background knowledge. Hope you haven’t fallen asleep yet, because we’re onto the actual poem now:

The basic premise of the poem is a bit like a bad joke: a man walks up to a pretty lady in a bar in the late 1500s, wants to ‘tap dat ass’, and spots a flea on the table. He’s trying to be smooth, so he compares the flea innocently biting them both and their blood mixing within it, to them leaving the bar and going back to his place to have pre-marital sex. He acts like it’s no big deal: ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this, /How little that which thou deniest me is;’ despite the fact of the time period that once a woman had sex she’d be essentially worthless if she wasn’t married to the guy she’d done the dirty with. The lady is clearly right to be seeming dubious, but the guy persists:  ‘this cannot be said /A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,’ – yeah, this guy is clearly hammered, right? ‘Sleep with me and you’ll still be a pure-sweet-innocent-virgin-angel!’ He clearly senses her reluctance, as he forlornly sighs that the flea ‘swells with one blood made of two, /And this, alas, is more than we would do.’ – yeah, the flea is the only one getting any kind of satisfaction tonight.

Then, in the second stanza, the woman goes to crush the flea, and the guy tries to stop her by saying that by having both of their blood within it and it’s own life, the flea has three lives that encapsulate the ‘couple’, and bring them very close on a spiritual level: ‘Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, /Where we almost, nay more than married are.’ The narrator goes as far as saying that in killing the flea she will kill all three of them. ‘self-murder added be, /And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.’ -This guy sounds like every other drunken asshole you’ve ever met in a bar, right? He’s so desperate to get some that he’s going after her on a spiritual level- remember in the time that suicide was punishable by death (…yeah…) and seen as an ultimate form of sacrilege by common society.

In spite of all this, the lady crushes the flea in the third stanza and Purples her nail, ‘in blood of innocence’- even after she’s literally killed the vessel of their love, he’s still trying to get into her skirts. ‘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:’ This losely translates to, ‘Lol you win, but while you did just kill that thing that was the whole basis of my argument, look around- neither of us is weaker for it! So, if killing the flea didn’t cause you any sin, then what fears you had about going back to my place and doing some sinning must also be dead!’ – Some guys, huh? In calling her fears false, the narrator undermines not only her argument but her whole person- her opinions and emotions. The narrator sounds like such a catch, no? …The poem ends on a cliff-hanger, with it being almost unclear if the narrator actually gets anything but a slap to the face.

Now, to analyse this jumbled mess of metaphors:

First, let’s take a look at that title. What pops into your mind first when you think about a ‘Flea’? If your answer is a vicious predator, a parasite, and the mixing of blood symbolising the mixing of bloodlines and therefore marriage, then you have answered correctly.

In the time of Donne’s writing the poem, the mixing of blood was equated to sex, which was equated to marriage- so, to have sex was to be married, essentially. A woman’s life would depend on who she married and subsequently had sex and babies with. Donne’s equating a flea with the religious concept of marriage and the physical concept of sex doesn’t just describe the religious conventions- it subverts and mocks them, too. In a weird way, the title is also foreshadowing the rest of the poem- the flea is equated with love in the full context of the poem, and yet this is in itself an odd comparison- it alludes to a big theme of the poem- unconventional love. Perhaps the speaker isn’t even experiencing love, but lust that he cleverly disguises as love (more on that later).

The thing you notice about a poem after the title is the structure, right? Or am I just weird? Anyway, The Flea is written in rhyming couplets that alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter. This acts as a subconscious suggestion that while the two people in the poem are different, the speaker believes that they belong together. The only time the speaker breaks form is during the triplet at the end of the poem ( ‘me’ ‘thee’ and ‘be’) allude to the holy trinity ever-present in Christianity, suggesting that since the speaker cannot use his raw lust to woo his lady, he has to resort to directly addressing her religious beliefs, because in the 1600s god was totally sexy and all that.

In addition to the rhyme and meter, the poem is comprised of three stanzas (another nod to the holy trinity) that’re only 9 lines long, while a traditional love poem/sonnet would be up to 14 lines. This could be the speaker’s way of implying their relationship is lacking something- but what? Love? Sex? -Hey, this is the metaphysical period of poetry we’re talking about here, maybe the speaker equates the two- think about that… In addition, the medial caesuras (posh word for punctuation in the middle of the lines of poetry) add a rhythm that reverberates through the poem that provides the woman with the illusion of control, while the guy is actually persuading her into temptation.

Speaking of the sound of the poem- read it out loud and make note of every time you have to make an ‘s’ sound. You’ve hit that sweet sweet sibilance. But what does sibilance make you think of? Snakes? Yes, yes it does! Now, remember that Donne is a sexually religious kinda bloke… ANYWAY, the sibilance is there on purpose to make you think of the serpent in the bible- you know, the one who tempted Eve into taking a bite of the forbidden fruit and dooming all mankind? That’s the ticket. So, the speaker is simultaneously Trying to manipulate her into biting the forbidden fruit while belittling her to do it, because nothing is sexier than a man making you feel small and insecure, am I right ladies? *Sounds of bitch-slapping in the distance* – Yes, that seems to be what the woman in the poem feels, too, as she crushes the flea under her thumb and taking back at least a little control.

‘Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,’- Let’s just ignore the rapey undertones of that ‘when’, and see how the narrator is equating the fair lady’s honour with her ‘yielding’ to him. He’s twisting this situation of him liking it and not wanting to put a ring on it, and making it sound like in having sex with him, she will not only maintain her honour, but strengthen it.

THEMES:

Now, we get to the fun parts: the themes of the poem. What is Donne trying to tell us? What’s the poem about? Is it really anything special? Well, we see it a little bit like a version of Game of Thrones: there’s blood and sex, but with religious undertones. Here are just a few of the key ideas we were able to pick out:

Blood:

When she crushes the flea, she spills their blood and crushes his argument. Their relationships sexlessness is confirmed with this, as she has just crushed the symbol of their sex and love under her thumb and taken the power back for her own side.

Sex:

He insists they are cloistered in ‘Walls of Jet’- insisting that they are already alone in a dark room together- think about what drunk, horny people do in dark rooms together…

He asks her to think about ‘how little’ she is denying him- this could be his way of trying to convince her that sex wouldn’t actually be a big part of their relationship; a way of manipulating his lust into the form of love.

The narrator insists that in the flea they have ‘One blood made of two’- referring to their mixing of bloodlines and maybe even linking in to the idea of ‘soul-mates’.

‘Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,’- Let’s just ignore the rapey undertones of that ‘when’, and see how the narrator is equating the fair lady’s honour with her ‘yielding’ to him. He’s twisting this situation of him liking it and not wanting to put a ring on it, and making it sound like in having sex with him, she will not only maintain her honour, but strengthen it.

RELIGION:

Another connotation of the aforementioned ‘Walls of jet- they must repent. Alone. Together. In a darkened room. ‘Repent’. Tooooootally.

‘Wherein could this flea guilty be, /Except in that drop which it sucked from thee? ‘ – the flea’s only sin was choosing her as a mate.  In this way, the narrator, unwittingly or otherwise, likens himself to the flea. If you were to analyse this poem from a feminist perspective, you could take this a step farther and talk about how the guy really is the flea throughout the poem (ooooh, getting deep here). However, the word ‘guilty’ makes you think of the whole poem as a trial for the flea- what is it guilty of, if anything? The flea being on trial may be the narrator or the woman in equal measure projecting their own opinions of what their relationship is into the little blood-sucking parasite (and they’re not even married yet, yeesh).

By using this transactional language to describe the flea, the narrator lowers their relationship to that of a transactional one- however, since he has spent the entirety of the poem complaining about the lack of transactions (or any kinds of actions) then it seems that by the end of this poem their relationship has been ushered into nothingness.

Aaaand that’s it for The Flea! Let us know if we missed anything you think it would be cool to talk about, or if you have anything you want us to analyse!

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