Jimmy Breck – Mc Kye
John Donne- The Flea
This ‘reading’ is only a quick look at one of the most popular of Donne’s poems, and it is certainly not meant to be taken as an in-depth analysis, certainly not a comprehensive reading. It is instead a pointer towards some issues that I think are raised by this poem. I have only spent a very short amount of time looking at this text, so expect not a term paper but a small number of my brief ramblings!
This ‘reading’ has three sections: Firstly, a copy of the poem itself; Secondly, by own quick glosses to the text, focusing on concepts or passages that may be obscure to modern readers. Thirdly, I offer an interpretation of The Flea- one that I would certainly encourage criticism and rejections of.
Note: ſ is the ‘long s’. Read it as though it were a letter “s”. To modern readers- and to early modern readers too, it looks like an ‘f’- Donne deliberately plays on this, choosing to write ‘suck’ to resemble ‘fuck’. If you are unfamiliar with early modern English, then it might be worth learning that ‘u’ and ‘v’ were not of the standardised pattern they inhabit today.
but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
Me it ſuck'd first, and now ſucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled bee; 
5 Confeſe it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or loſe of maidenhead ,
this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two,
9 And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.
10 Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
When we almost, nay more than maryed are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
15 And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet .
use make thee apt to kill me,
Let not to this, selfe murder added bee,
18 And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.
19 Cruell and sodaine, has thou since
20 Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence ?
In what could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it ſuckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and saist that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor mee the weaker now;
25 'Tis true, then learne how
false, feares bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee
1) Verb: consider, observe, note.
2) An idea commonly held in the early modern period, observing classical theories of medicine, is that sex was a ‘mingling of two bloods’- blood was held to be the basic component of semen.
3) Noun: virginity, maidenhood.
4) A dark, even black hard material.
5) i.e. I, you and the flea are all living things in that insect. To kill three would resemble killing god (the holy trinity): to kill the flea, then, would be sacrilege.
6) Presumably the mistress has just crushed the flea (and Donne’s argument, it would appear) though these power relations are a little less clear once we read in more depth.
It is common to ascribe to Donne the status of archetypal logical poet- a man whose works are tightly crafted, confident, and certain in their application of metaphor and analogy. True enough, Donne’s poem seems to suggest a certain self-security: we see a tight, predictable rhyme scheme, and an ordered structure. There is also arguably a wealth of rhetorical resources - Donne does not shy away from using the lexis of the military (“triumph’st”), the medical (“two bloods…mingled”) or even the religious (“cloysterd”; “sacrilege”). Such a feature that might be read as hinting at Donne’s essential confidence in his ability to create a unified philosophy, to adapt a wide range of discourses, to demonstrate poetic craft. However, I want to suggest that the relations of power and position of sexuality in this small poem are a great deal less certain than such an interpretation might suggest.
At the very least, Donne is not simply providing a stylised, easy conclusion but is engaging in a real rhetorical struggle. He chooses to employ exuberant, self-conscious metaphors that often contradict themselves. The conclusion of his poem,
Just so much honor, when thou
yeeld'st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee
simultaneously insists on the identification of the flea with the sexual union (i.e. it may be compared to ‘yielding’) and on the impossibility of doing so (referring to the mistress’ counter-argument, where the flea’s death cannot be equated to the death of man and wife). That is, one might translate the meaning of the climax as: ‘this flea’s death did not kill you, and therefore the flea cannot be identified with us, yet this flea represents us, and so the insignificant death of a flea shows you how insignificant (“little”) my enjoyment of you is for matters of “honor”’. Such an argument is obviously a contradiction- he argues at the same time the flea’s capacity and incapacity to represent the woman and husband.
Similarly, he insists on the essential privacy of sexuality, repeating and emphasising “marriage” in line 13, by which he figures the domestic space and its objects as defined in primarily erotic terms. But lines 5 and 6 demand the addressee to consider sexual relations in primarily public terms- “sin”, “shame” or “maidenhead” (that latter word hints as much as social position- ‘-head’ has the same root as the modern suffix ‘-hood’), where a flea is a small, insignificant object that cannot be equated with a sexual union. The paradox that concludes the poem both uses impersonal, public terms- ‘honor’ more obviously, though ‘yield’ also (it suggests a set of broader power relations, and would be associated somewhat, I would argue, with images of sexual relations in terms of larger-scale social hierarchies).
The very slightest charge we could level at Donne is that he seems tempted to sacrifice logic for rhetorical finesse- “three sins for killing three” is of course, not true- to kill three and commit sacrilege would make four sins. This is not simple pedantry, but rather I think it alerts us to a prioritisation of tried-and-tested stylistics over the logical progression that Donne’s tricky arguments, grounded in points of intellectual studies of his age, asks us to focus on. The Flea seems to have its whole dramatic structure- the outrage at killing the flea, the resolution based on creating an (apparently) convincing argument, based around the reception of his logic and the lack of any conceptually engaging debates to contradict him. We seem, in the post-Romantic age, to take for granted a dichotomy between the intellectual and the aesthetic- yet early modern texts suggest far more a congruence of fictional activity and academic debate. Looking at Donne’s arguments with a critical eye, aware of how 17th century ideologies would have responded to the precise details of his postulations, I feel, is important in our readings of this poetry.
In short, Donne seems to adapt his argument as it progresses, sometimes in contradictory ways- a feature that perhaps challenges that image of the metaphysical conceit as unifies, confident figuring of an entire world.
Sexual volition appears difficult to determine, as many verbs that mark the actions of the lovers’ sexual relationship suggest some degree of passivity. “Deny’st” might be regarded rather formal and abstract, besides, it does little to suggest the actual concrete action it represents. More significantly, the verb “let” is passive- the woman who enacts the command is reactive, rather than proactive. Only the flea seems to be the only being invested with erotic agency:
“Me it ſuck'd first, and now ſucks thee”
Not only is the sly obscenity a hint at the lack of clear hierarchies within a supposedly patriarchal household- the choice of objective case “me” and “thee” (whose similitude is emphasised by the internal rhyme) suggests the femininity of both partners. The flea is the phallus- the object that “pamper'd swells with… blood”, the object with the capacity to “ſuck” (Renaissance perspectives on sexual anatomy held female sexuality and genitals to be an ‘absence’, passively carrying the results of sexual action. Only male genitals and reproductive organs can ‘fuck’ anything).
Yet, at the same time, this is the object that is suddenly crushed, staining the woman’s nail “in blood of innocence”, at the exact moment of her ‘triumph’, a word whose military connotations should, I think, be read as attaching a firm sense of masculinity to its subject. This feminisation of Donne, the apparent contradiction of his argument, and the crushing of the flea occur simultaneously- they represent a castration: the wife destroys the phallic insect; just she deftly counters the argument crafted for the purposes of sexual conquest.
It would be tempting to imagine a far greater sexual radicalism inhabiting the poem, however, than I believe we should admit. This castration is not the result of an uncontrollable female volition but appears to me as much staged by the male author himself. Looking at the report of the counter-argument:
…Except in that drop which it
ſuckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and saist that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor mee the weaker now;…
Despite an ostensibly pivotal ‘yet’, the mistress’ response actually proves congruent with the preceding lines, and in fact the very opening of the poem. Donne’s paradox, which he seems to be relying upon for the achievement of his erotic aims, depends considerably on this alternative reading of the flea’s significance- that is: how “little...//… life” will be taken by “this flea’s death”. It is noticeable how this ‘triumph’ actually fits rather neatly into Donne’s rhyme, and more importantly how his choice of pronouns (“thou…thyself…mee”) alerts us to this line being Donne’s rendering of her speech- his pronouns reflect his own perspective. As indirect speech, the feminine voice is interpreted, defined and staged through the poet’s essentially masculine perspective.
This male-ordained self-castration makes the supposedly easy task of assigning gender roles in The Flea a far more complex matter. Donne’s poem hints not at stable patriarchy, but an early modern society questioning and playing with concepts of gender and associated forms of power. There is a straddling of public and private spheres here, yet also a failure to achieve secure identity in either. The Flea points towards a symbolic order in a state of flux.
Questions? Comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org