‘The Flea’ – John Donne

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John Donne, ‘The Flea’

John Donne’s
poem, ‘The Flea’, was nominated by Christopher Smith, a sixth-form
student from Chester, who likes its intricate and inventive exploration
of a central image, its humour and its dramatic quality.

The poem records
the attempt of a man (is it Donne himself?) to convince his lover
to have sex with him. He uses the example of a flea, which they have
apparently discovered in their bed, to present one argument after
another in his attempt to win her over. His lover squashes the flea,
but he turns his argument around, and uses this as a point to convince

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;

Yet this enjoys before it woo,

And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;

And this, alas, is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, yea, 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’re met,

And cloister’d 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?

Wherein could this flea guilty be,

Except in that drop which it suck’d 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.

Further Reading

John Donne was born in 1572 and died in 1631.

Donne originally trained as lawyer, but as a young man he led a life of extravagance and adventure, and also sailed on a number of military expeditions against Spain: lots of his poems about love and sex, like ‘The Flea’, come from this period. Later in life, he broke with Catholicism, became Royal Chaplain, and then Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. In this later period, he wrote a number of religious poems, passionate dramatisations of what seems to have been a troubled faith, and sermons. If you like this poem, you might like to read these other works.

Donne is often known as a metaphysical poet: this is a name given by modern scholars to poets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries whose work is distinguished by its wit, elaborately structured ideas and inventive imagery. If you like Donne, you might also like the poetry of George Herbert, who is another religious poet, although his language and style is very different from Donne’s. William Shakespeare is not usually grouped with the metaphysical poems, but his sonnets share lots of the complexity and inventiveness of Donne’s poems: you might also enjoy reading them.

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