The Flea : by John Donne Summary and Analysis

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The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Confess it, this cannot be said
A sin, or shame, or 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 l, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is,
Though parents grudge, and you, w'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, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence ?
In what 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 thyself, nor me the weaker now;
Tis true, then learn how false, fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deny'st me is; Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be; Confess it, this cannot be said A sin, or shame, or 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.
The Flea

Critical Analysis:

      The Flea has been the subject of love-poetry. The argument used by Donne is that the flea has a free access to the body of the beloved which is denied to the lover. Donne, however, makes a plea for physical union, which is necessary for spiritual love. Donne's originality and intensity makes it a powerful lyric. Grierson observes "It is a strange choice to our mind, but apparently the poem was greatly admired as a masterpiece." Coleridge paid a tribute in a poem:

Thrice-honoured fleas; great you all as Donne
In Phoebus archives registered are ye,
And this your patent of nobility.

Development of Thought:

      The flea is a symbol of the poet's passionate plea for physical and sensuous love. The lover speaks to his beloved as he points to the flea which has sucked her blood. The flea has also sucked his blood and therefore the bloods of the lover and the beloved have mixed in its body. It has brought about a union of two bloods. The flea has enjoyed union with the beloved without any courtship or marriage. This is not considered as a matter of sin or shame or loss of virginity. The flea is superior to the lover because it can enjoy physical union without the formality of marriage.

Triple Murder:

      Donne goes a step further. He compares the flea to a temple and to a marriage bed. Just as the two lovers are united in the temple in a bond of marriage, so the two bloods have been united in the body of the flea. Its body is a sacred temple where their mariage has taken place. Similarly, their blood has mingled in the body of the flea and so its (flea's) body is like their marriage bed. The two have mixed up in the body of the flea in spite of her objections and those of her parents. Her killing the flea would be an act of triple murder - murder of the flea, murder of the lover and her own murder. This is a sin and so she must spare the flea.

No Loss of Honour:

      The beloved kills the flea and the poet feels unhappy. He chides her for her cruelty. What, after all, was the crime of the flea? She sucked the blood of both. Sucking a drop of her blood has not made her weak; she has also not lost her honour or chastity. Just as she has felt no weaker and lost no honour by the sucking of the blood by the flea, in the same way, her physical union with the lover will not affect either her health or her honour. She should, therefore, willingly surrender herself to her lover. The poet has rejected the notions of honour or chastity which are generally held out as arguments against sexual indulgence. Even spiritual love has its prelude in physical love. Why should his beloved object to his overtures ?

Critical Remarks:

      Donne uses new images and conceits to advantage through the flea bite. First, the mingling of the bloods of the lover and the beloved in the body of the flea is no matter of sin or shame. The flea has brought about the mingling of the blood of the two and therefore there should be no objection to their sex-relationship. The conceit of the flea as a temple and as a marriage-bed is original, so also the sin of triple-murder by the proposed crushing of the flea by the beloved. When the beloved has killed the flea with her nails, the poet regards it as shedding blood of innocence. Her victory over the flea is imaginary rather than real. She will lose as much honour by sexual relationship with the poet as the honour lost by the flea-bite.

      Donne believes in physical relationship between the lovers. Sex is above fear or shame. The world of the lovers is different from the ordinary world. However, critics differ about the justification of sex relationship. James Reeve calls the poem "cynical and unpleasant", while A.J. Smith regards it anti-courtly and anti-Petrarchan. There is no doubt that the poet's plea for physical union is both personal and original. The poem is remarkable for its emotional intensity and vigour.

Paraphrase:

      Stanza 1 : (The poet addresses his beloved and refers to the flea). Just have a close look at this flea (a fly which sucks blood) and note how insignificant is the thing which you do not permit me. The flea sucked my blood and then it jumped to you to suck your blood. As such, our two bloods have been mingled up within the body of this flea. You are well-aware that this mixture of our bloods within the flea cannot be regarded as a matter of sin or shame or loss of virginity. The flea has enjoyed your body without wooing or courtship and its body has become bigger with the additional mixed blood. The flea seems to be proud of mingling our bloods, perhaps such direct enjoyment of love is not possible for us.

      Stanza 2 : Please wait a moment and do not kill the flea. Spare this flea which is a combination of three lives (the flea, the lover and the beloved). Our blood has mingled within the body of the flea and we are more than married. This flea is both you and I together, its body is like our marriage bed and as subtle as the temple in which our marriage would take place. Perhaps your parents would not agree like you that we be united, we are united within the black body of the flea. You may follow the usual convention of killing the lover but please do not commit suicide. If you kill the flea you will not only kill me but also yourself. By killing the flea you will be committing a triple murder as also the of desecrating of the temple of love i.e. (the body of the flea).

      Stanza 3 : You are cruel and rash in killing the flea. You have stained your finger nails by shedding the blood of this innocent being. What was the crime of which it was guilty? Its only fault was that it sucked a drop of your blood. You feel proud of your victory over the flea. You say that neither you nor me is weaker for killing the flea. It is quite true. Now you may learn a lesson from this incident that our fears often false and without foundation. You will lose as little honour as the blood taken by the flea from your body, if you yield to me (just as you have lost hardly any blood by the action of the flea, in the same way you will hardly lose your honour if you yield your body to me.)

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