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The Flea

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English Literature

Content warning: sexual themes

John Donne's 'The Flea' is a metaphysical poem that explores devotion and sexual love through the conceit of a flea. Written sometime in the late 16th century, the poem is exemplary of Donne's poetic voice, philosophical and spiritual themes, and the metaphysical genre.

'The Flea': Summary

Written in

Unknown - published posthumously in 1633

Written by

John Donne (1572-1631)

Shape / style

Metaphysical poetry

Meter

Iambic tetrameter / iambic pentameter (alternating)

Rhyme Scheme

AABBCCDDD

Poetic Devices

Frequently noted imagery

  • Sex and eroticism
  • Christianity

Tones

  • Erotic
  • Comic

Key themes

  • Sex
  • Carpe diem (seize the day)

Meaning

A man uses a flea to form an argument as to why his would-be lover should sleep with him: 'The flea has bitten us both - since our blood has already mixed inside the flea, we may as well have sex. Wait, you've killed the flea? You've basically committed murder - but it made no difference. So it would make no difference if we had sex!'

'The Flea': Context

Biographical Context

Although this poem was published posthumously in 1633, historians believe that Donne wrote this poem in the 1590s, which means he most likely would have been in his 20s. Donne studied law at Lincoln's Inn from 1591-94, which is perhaps why 'The Flea' builds an argument in the way that a lawyer would; the speaker of this particular poem makes a case for why a woman should sleep with him, which is played out for comic effect.

During his 20s, Donne spent much of his time (and inherited money) travelling and enjoying the company of young women. Fellow writer Richard Baker described Donne as 'a great visitor of Ladies'. This is reflected in the 'carpe diem' (seize the day) attitude of the poem's speaker.

Donne would later go on to become dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London in 1621 until his death in 1631 (aged 59). Although he had not committed to a religious vocation at the time he wrote 'The Flea', you can see the influence of Christianity within the poem, as he alludes to concepts such as sacrifice and the Holy Trinity.

Historical context

In late 16th-17th century England, fleas were an extremely common sight. In fact, fleabites were a huge factor in the great plague (1665-1666) that would come after Donne's death. It makes sense that poets would use fleas as inspiration - though Donne does so in an original and unexpected way.

Literary context

'The Flea,' along with much of Donne's work, is categorised as metaphysical poetry. This 17th-century movement also includes poets such as George Herbert, Andrew Marvell and Abraham Cowley.

'The Flea' as a metaphysical poem

'The Flea' is a metaphysical poem because:

  • The speaker uses the elaborate conceit of a flea to represent a sexual relationship.
  • There are wildly divergent images in the poem (the flea and the marriage bed)
  • There is a combination of romantic love with religious faith.
  • There is an argument in the form of a syllogism.

Let's take a look at these in more detail.

Metaphysical poetry is known for its use of conceits (elaborate, fanciful metaphors); the metaphysical conceit is a type of extended metaphor that makes an imaginative leap to compare two different things with each other.

Metaphysical poets, such as Donne, are known for their wit and use of wordplay, including puns. Their work often mixes humour with deep, serious topics, such as death and spirituality.

Metaphysical poetry is also noted for its use of syllogism.

A syllogism is an argument that draws a conclusion from two separate premises that share a common term.

All A and B (major premise); A is C (minor premise); thus B is C (conclusion).

'All cats are mammals. All cats have whiskers. Therefore, all mammals have whiskers' - as you can see, syllogistic thinking can create false logic.

One of the syllogisms in 'The Flea' is: 'our blood has mixed inside the flea, and sex is just the mixing of bodily fluids, therefore we have had sex already - it would do no harm to do it again!' Of course, Donne understood that this form of reasoning is flawed, and this is where much of the poem's comedy comes from.

'The Flea': Analysis

The poem is presented here in its entirety, with further analysis into its structure, meter, rhyme scheme, tone, and the poetic devices Donne has used in 'The Flea'.

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;

You 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.

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 marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Though parents grudge, and you, we 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.

Cruel and sudden, have you 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.

The Flea, Donne's Inspiration, StudySmarterDonne's inspiration, Pixabay.

Structure

The structure of 'The Flea' helps to reinforce its themes.

The poem is divided into three stanzas, reflecting the significance of the number three in the poem.

This is also emphasised, as:

  • The speaker in the poem suggests that he, the woman, and the flea, have combined to become one poem, i.e., 'three lives in one flea spare'.
  • The speaker speaks of 'Three sins in killing three'.
  • The poem's religious undertones are emphasised as the number three brings to mind the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity (God, Son and Holy Spirit) and the speaker talks of the woman committing 'three sins'.
  • There are three sites of spiritual union: the flea, the marriage bed, and the marriage temple.

Rhyme Scheme

Each stanza has nine lines and follows the rhyme scheme AABBCCDDD. This means that there are three rhyming couplets followed by a triplet.

Notice that the rhyming triplets at the end of each stanza are yet another recurrence of the number three, reinforcing the significance of the number to the content of the poem.

Meter

The meter alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter. Don't worry if you don't understand these terms, they're simpler than they appear at first!

The poem's metrical feet (which are units of rhythm) are iambs.

An iamb is a group of two syllables in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed.

See below for an example - note that the syllables in bold are accented, or stressed. Try reading it out loud and you should naturally hear the unstressed-stressed rhythm of the lines:

'Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married are. '

Now notice that there are four iambs in the first line:

'Oh stay, | three lives | in one | flea spare,'

This is an example of iambic tetrameter. This just means that a line contains four iambs.

The second line contains five iambs:

'Where we | almost, | nay more | than mar | ried are.'

This is an example of iambic pentameter, which means that a line contains five iambs.

And so as we can see, the lines alternate between iambic tetrameter (four iambs) and iambic pentameter (five iambs).

Tone

The tone of 'The Flea' is both erotic and comic.

There is sexual imagery, particularly in the first stanza in which the speaker expresses his jealousy that the flea sucked on the woman's flesh before swelling with 'one blood made of two'. The flea swelling with blood can be seen as a phallic symbol of an erection.

The speaker's rather ridiculous reasoning as to why the woman should sleep with him is the main source of the comedy. His attempts do not seem particularly successful, and his arguments become increasingly flimsy as the poem goes on.

Speaker

The speaker is, in the classic style of metaphysical poetry, constructing elaborate arguments to get what he wants (in this case, he wants a woman to sleep with him). He is witty in his attempts, but could also be seen as manipulative.

Poetic Devices

Conceit

In metaphysical, poetry the conceit is a type of extended metaphor that makes an imaginative leap to compare two different things with each other.

Like other types of metaphor (including extended metaphor), a conceit helps us to draw a comparison between two things in a way we had not considered before. However, a conceit is different in that it takes a huge leap of imagination to see the similarities between the two things, as they are seemingly unrelated at first and bear no obvious similarities to each other.

In 'The Flea', the fleabite is a conceit that stands for a sexual relationship. The speaker tries to convince the object of his desire that being bitten by the same flea is basically the same as having sex. He then takes this one step further by suggesting that the fleabite means that they are practically married! You can see this at the beginning of the second stanza:

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 marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Here, he compares the flea, which contains the blood of the three of them (man, woman, and flea), to their 'marriage bed' and 'marriage temple' to claim that they are joined together on both physically and spiritually. To see this comparison takes a huge leap in both logic and imagination, which is why this is a conceit.

Enjambment

Donne makes use of enjambment (when one line continues into the other with no punctuation breaks) several times in the poem:

You know'st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Cruel and sudden, have you since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou

Find'st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;

These instances of one line running into the next could be seen as the result of the speaker's desperation. There is no time to stop for pause, as he continually babbles at his would-be lover in an attempt to get what he wants. On the other hand, the enjambment can also be seen to reflect the speaker's attempt to create sexual tension between him and his would-be-lover; after the speaker says 'this cannot be said', the time taken to read the next line stresses the 'a sin' to make the words feel more charged.

Key themes

Sex

Sex, and the desire for sex, is a theme that runs throughout 'The Flea'. The speaker declares to the woman that the flea 'sucked me first, and now sucks thee', before it 'swells with one blood made of two / And this, alas, is more than we would do.' The 'sucking' and 'swelling' are rather lewd allusions to sexual acts.

The speaker's desire for sex is the drive behind the entire poem.

Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem is a Latin phrase meaning 'seize the day' and it is a common sentiment in metaphysical poetry. The spirit of 'carpe diem' is focusing on the present moment as opposed to worrying about the future.

The speaker evokes this spirit by trying to convince the woman that the mingling of bodily fluids is not sinful, but something to be enjoyed. Referring to their blood mixing inside the flea, he says 'Thou know'st that this cannot be said / A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.' By 'maidenhead', he is referring to the woman's virginity. Of course, this highlights how irrational the speaker's argument is: 'you haven't lost your virginity by letting our fluids mix in the flea, so you wouldn't lose it by mixing fluids during sex either!' This is a syllogism.

Meaning

The speaker forms an elaborate argument, alluding to broad existential topics such as spirituality, sin, death, and the nature of sexuality. But, ultimately, he just wants the woman to sleep with him and will say anything to convince her.

You could see the poem as a display of wit; Donne uses the speaker's ridiculous arguments to comic effect. You could also read this poem as an expression of carnal desire, maybe even a commentary on the way we dress up our 'sinful' base instincts (such as sexuality) in religious meaning in order to justify or rationalise them.

The Flea - Key takeaways

  • 'The Flea' was published posthumously in 1633 (two years after John Donne's death). Historians believe that Donne wrote 'The Flea' in the 1590s, which means he most likely would have been in his 20s.
  • 'The Flea' contains erotic elements, but it is a comic (humorous) poem.
  • Throughout the poem, the speaker builds a complex argument to try and convince a woman to sleep with him.
  • The poem has religious undertones, drawing on the idea of sin and the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity.
  • Donne belongs to a group of poets from the 17th century that has become known as the metaphysical poets. 'The Flea' is a great example of metaphysical poetry, as it is a display of wit and wordplay with deep, spiritual themes.
  • 'Carpe diem' (seize the day) is a sentiment present in this, along with many other metaphysical poems.
  • True to the style of metaphysical poetry, 'The Flea' uses a conceit. A conceit is a type of extended metaphor that makes an imaginative leap to compare two different things with each other. In 'The Flea', the fleabite is a conceit that stands for a sexual relationship.
  • 'The Flea' is divided into three stanzas, and each stanza has nine lines. The rhyme scheme is AABBCCDDD, meaning that there are three rhyming couplets followed by a triplet. The number three is significant throughout the poem, and so the structure and rhyme scheme helps to reinforce the content.

The Flea

Historians believe that 'The Flea' was written sometime in the 1590s. It was published posthumously in 1633 (two years after John Donne's death).

John Donne belongs to a group of poets from the 17th century who have become known as the metaphysical poets (first posited by Samuel Johnson in the 18th century). 'The Flea' is a great example of metaphysical poetry, as it is a display of wit and wordplay with deep, spiritual themes. Like many metaphysical poems, 'The Flea' uses a conceit, which is a type of extended metaphor. 

The flea in 'The Flea' is crushed by the woman who the speaker is trying to seduce. In response to this, the speaker says: 'Cruel and sudden, hast thou since / Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?' He then uses this to form another argument that the woman should sleep with him: the sinful act of crushing the flea did not harm them ('thou / Find'st not thy self, nor me the weaker now') so what harm could having sex have? 

'The Flea' does not necessarily present a paradox, but rather an argument with flawed logic. The speaker of the poem presents an argument to the effect of: 'our blood has mixed inside the flea, and sex is just the mixing of bodily fluids, therefore we have had sex already - it would do no harm to do it again!' This argument is a syllogism, as it draws a conclusion from two separate premises that share a common term. 

Final The Flea Quiz

Question

Which of the following does NOT describe the tone of the poem?

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Answer

Nostalgic

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Question

When was 'The Flea' first published?

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Answer

1633

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Question

Which of the following best describes the style of poetry that 'The Flea' fits into?


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Answer

Metaphysical

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Question

Who wrote 'The Flea'?


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Answer

John Donne

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a key theme in 'The Flea'?


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Answer

The ocean

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Question

Which poetic device does Donne use in the following lines?


Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou   

Find'st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;

Show answer

Answer

Enjambment

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Question

Which of the following best describes the rhyme scheme of each stanza?


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Answer

Three couplets and a triplet.

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Question

What does the speaker want the woman to do in the poem?


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Answer

To sleep with him.

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Question

True or false: in late 16th-17th century England, fleas were rare.


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Answer

False!

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Question

'Carpe diem' is a theme in this poem, and in metaphysical poetry in general. But what does the phrase mean?


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Answer

Seize the day.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a type of meter used in the poem?


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Answer

Iambic hexameter

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Question

How many metric feet (iambs) are there in a line of iambic tetrameter?


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Answer

Four.

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Question

True or false: 'The Flea' was published after John Donne's death. 


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Answer

True. 

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Question

What is the concept of 'The Flea'?


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Answer

The fleabite/a sexual relationship.

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Question

In 'The Flea', the speaker argues (paraphrased): 'our blood has mixed inside the flea, and sex is just the mixing of bodily fluids, therefore we have had sex already - it would do no harm to do it again!'


What is this type of argument called?


Show answer

Answer

A syllogism.

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