John Donne's "The Flea"

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“The Flea” is a story of a man trying to convince his lover to surrender her virginity to him, and at the center of his plea is a flea. In this clever poem Donne uses a flea, blood, and the death of the flea as an analogy for the oldest most primal exchange, sex. Donne, through symbolic images, not only questions the validity of coveting virginity but also the importance of sex as it pertains to life. The metaphors in “The Flea” are plentiful, but the symbols repeated throughout the poem are clear, beginning with the most prevalent, the flea. This minute creature is full of symbolic meanings. During the time this poem was written (the Renaissance) the flea was used in many poems about sex. In this particular poem the flea bites is symbolic of the act of sex from the man’s remark in the beginning, “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, how little that which deny’st me is” (886). The flea is small and trivial, and while the man’s lover denies him sex, we see the connection, his comparison of the two as such minute, insignificant things.

Historically speaking, sex in the 17th century was thought of as a mixing of the blood, and so the man begins to rationalize that, in a sense, the flea has mixed the blood of them both, thereby doing what his lover would not.

At this point he argues that since the flea has “mixed their blood”, why shouldnt they? He argues that since their bloods have mingled and are therefore one blood made of two (886), they are essentially of the same flesh and are therefore married! The flea is described as a marriage temple and a carrier of life, but then in the following stanza as something insignificant and small. Donne applies clever duality to the flea and therefore to sex. The metaphor develops more as it relates to the other symbols. Blood is used more than once as a symbol. The speaker talks of the blood reverently and likens it to honor. Blood in this poem is symbolic of life and the soul. The speaker remarks that in the flea his blood and his lover’s blood were mixed, therefore during sex their souls are mingled and become one. This is where the flea becomes a marriage temple. Now, not only has he reinforced his argument for the seduction of his lover, but he has also given a reason not to kill the flea. The flea at this point, at least in the man’s argument, is a symbol of marriage and copulation. Thus he defends it when his lover moves to kill it. He argues that by spilling the mixed blood of both, by killing the flea, she is in a sense committing murder. He also states that she would be guilty of sacrilege by desecrating the holy temple of marriage.

Ultimately when the flea is killed, he twists his argument around and declares that despite the sacred morals he has been preaching, killing the flea did not really denounce his lovers honor and despite the hallowed values she has invoked in refusing to have premarital sex, doing so would not denounce her honor either.

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This is an odd poem, but it shows Donne’s ability to turn unlikely images into detailed symbols of love and romance. Using the image of a flea that has just bitten the two lovers illustrates the bigger issue at hand. “How little that which thou deny’st me is” (886). Donnes insinuation at the erotic without ever directly referring to sex, while at the same time leaving no doubt as to exactly what he means, is as much a source of the poems wit as the ridiculous image of the flea is.

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