ENGLISH LITERATURE POETRY – THE FLEA

Written by
John Donne (1572-1631)

Published in
posthumously published in 1633, the original date of composition is unknown

Poetic conceit
A form of poetry that aims to be ridiculous and provides argument by analogy. Manipulates images to create a shocking comparison.

Carpe diem poetry
‘seize the day’ featuring a belief that man should make the most out of life

Context:
Gender roles – patriarchal society, hygeine (fleas were common), Honour was important for men

Structure
The poem has three stanzas representing the movement of conversation. The speaker starts by presenting the flea comparison, the second stanza is then showing how the woman tries to kill the flea (thus crushing his hopes of sleeping with her) and the last stanza shows the woman successfully killing the flea, hence angering the speaker.

Rhyme
Each stanza follows a rhyme pattern of a sestet (formed of rhyming couplets) AABBCC and then a rhyming tripley DDD

Metre
The poem alternates from Iambic tetrameter (with four iambs) to iambic pentameter (five iambs) until the last two lines which are both in iambic pentameter, separating them into a couplet, could argue that this emphasises the speakers wish to sleep with the woman.

‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this, how little that which thou deny’st me is;’
Opens by presenting the flea as a comparison to sex. Explains to the reader that the girl has denied the speaker sex, and trivialises her virginity (‘how little’). Context: women would need their virginity to be able to marry into better lives.

‘It sucked me first, and now sucks thee and in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;’
Internal rhyme of ‘me’ and ‘thee’ represents sex

‘Thou know’st that this cannot be said a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;’
The ‘mingling’ of blood in the flea is not a ‘sin, shame or loss of virginity’ . Sibilance emphasises the triplet.

‘Yet this enjoys before it woo, and pampered swells with one blood made of two, and this, alas, is more than we would do.’
Tells the girl that the blood mixes in the flea without courship (signifying how he is trying to persuade the girl to sleep with him without courting officially – scandalous for the woman to accept). ‘pampered swells’ is phallic imagery. ‘Alas’ signifies a lament.

‘O stay, three lives in one flea spare, where we almost, yea more than married are.’
Biblical imagery (holy trinity). Sex was considered to be an act committed after marriage showing how the speaker is directly talking about them having sex. The religious imagery could show the speaker trying to convince the girl that for them to slept together would be religiously sound.

‘This flea is you and I, and this our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;’
‘Temple’ shows worship. The speaker is trying to convince the girl that they are as good as married.

‘Though parents grudge, and you, we’are met and cloistered in these living walls of jet.’
They are hidden from her parents (it was common for parents to disown daughters that had sex before marriage) within the body of the flea.

‘Let not to that, self-murder added be, and sacrilege, three sins in killing three.’
Killing the flea, is not only killing herself but the flea and him (his blood in the flea). Religious imagery

‘Cruel and sudden, hast thou since purpled thy nail in blood of innocence? Wherein could this flea guilty be, except in that drop which it sucked from thee?’
‘Sudden’ shows shock. Rhetorical question shows how the speaker is questioning the girl. He is trying to guilt trip her. Tries to persuade her that the flea was innocent just like if they had sex.

‘Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me, will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee’
Contextually, men’s honour was important to them.