‘The Flea’ by John Donne is a metaphysical poem. Metaphysical poets belonged to the 17th century. The works of the metaphysical poets are marked by philosophical exploration, colloquial diction, ingenious conceits, irony and metrically flexible lines. John Donne, a master of wit uses unusual metaphors to convey the love between a man and a woman. The Flea is amongst such an unusual love poem, where the poet uses a flea to reveal his sexual interest with his lover. Published in 1633, the poem is about a man trying to convince a woman to have intercourse with her and he shows that it is not a sin as flea already mingled their blood. The poem is witty, romantic, fascinating, and is one of the best poems of John Donne.
The Flea – Summary
The poem is divided into three stanzas of nine lines each. In stanza one, the speaker shows a flea to a young woman he is trying to coax to sleep with him and argues that because it bit him and then her, their blood is joined in the flea’s body, which is almost like being joined sexually. He points out that the flea isn’t a monogamous creature; it just moves from host to host, sucking blood, and nobody calls it wrong or sinful. It is just doing what’s in its nature. Therefore, if the flea’s action is innocent, then there is nothing wrong with them having a sexual relationship.
In stanza two, the speaker furthers his argument, trying to convince the woman that the flea is like a marriage bed where they’ve joined as one. The woman never speaks in the poem, but there’s a suggestion that she wants to squash the flea because the speaker begs her to ‘spare’ it and compares killing the flea to killing him and herself as well because their lives are joined in the flea.
In stanza three, the speaker pleads with the woman, arguing that the flea hasn’t done anything wrong and that in fact, their relationship is even less sinful because they would be only committing to each other, while the flea never remains with one host/partner. His words indicate that she’s told him that killing the flea has harmed neither of them and that he’ll soon get over her: ‘Yet thou triumphs, and say’st that thou find’st, not thyself nor me the weaker now.’ He concludes that she has sacrificed her ‘ honour,’ or her virginity, not by giving herself to him, but by killing the innocent flea that holds both of their lives.
Brief Analysis of Donne’s Flea
The Flea is a poem that takes the reader into the heart of an intimate space. Here sit a man and a woman, possibly on a bed, the man pointing out the presence of a flea, quite common in Renaissance times, the middle of the 16th century.
This tiny parasite has recently sucked blood from them both, as is their instinct, so the man takes this opportunity to put forward an argument for sexual union to the woman, based on the now swollen flea’s actions.
About the sucking of the flea: it’s all quite natural a process, no sin or shame or loss of virginity involved. That word maidenhead actually means hymen, so we can assume the woman is a virgin.
Their blood is mingled, a successful act for the flea who doesn’t have to bother with pleasantries, charm or promises (to woo). If only they could emulate the flea and mingle their own blood, that is, have sex.
The woman is about to kill the flea but is stopped by the man…Oh, stay. He posits that the flea is sacred, a symbol of marriage and that killing it would amount to sacrilege.
She ignores him. She’s having none of this religious symbolism or hyperbole. It’s interesting to note that she is silent throughout the poem yet is the one who has all the power. She kills the flea with her nail. Tiny act, huge consequences.
By killing the parasite the woman has effectively ended the argument, the man almost says as much…’ thou triumph’st’… leaving them both on the bed as equals.
Yet, in the final three lines, there seems to be a twist. The man admits she could be right…’Tis true’… but, in a last attempt to win her over…’ when thou yield’st to me’… he says that only her honour will be lost, a trivial matter, just like the killing of the flea.
So the reader is left to ponder on the argument, to savour the minidrama and to conclude that the outcome of this brief encounter will never be known.