Most critics agree that John Donne wrote The Flea during his youth, before becoming an ordained minister. It was first published as part of Songs and Sonnets in a posthumous collection that appeared in 1630, 1635, 1650, and 1669. As does his other romantic poetry, it contains a tone marked with irony and playfulness. He adopts the popular convention of using the fl ea as an object of humor, due to the fact that such a tiny creature could inflict such misery on a human being. The flea became a subject not only of literature, but also of art, as seen in the 1630 painting Woman Catching Fleas by Georges de la Tour. In The Flea the speaker notes the insect’s activity of blood sucking as symbolic of sex between romantic partners. He creates a parody of the approach used by Cavalier Poets, who through flawed logic attempted to convince virgins to engage in sex. Donne presents a circular argument that focuses on the flea’s activity as an excuse for conjugal relations. He uses a closed form in three stanzas, each with a rhyme pattern of aabbccddd.
The poem begins with a plea for attention to the speaker’s love, assumed to be a male voice speaking to a female: “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, / how little that which thou deny’st me is.” Donne uses repetition of mark for emphasis, insisting that his audience note his main point. When he uses the term little in describing the act of sex that his love denies him, he does not intend to diminish the importance of that act. Rather, he attempts to convince her that engaging in sex would not be the enormous sin that she perceives it to be. He uses the flea’s diminutive size to help make his point.
Donne supports his argument by noting that the flea has sucked blood from both of their bodies, allowing it to commingle with his own, inside his body. Because the lovers’ juices have already mixed, the speaker suggests, they have theoretically already engaged in sexual union: “Me it suck’d first, and now sucks thee, / And in this fl ea our two bloods mingled be.” That act caused no shame he argues, saying, “Confess it, this cannot be said / A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead.” Donne purposely indents the final three rhyming lines, or triplet, of each of his three stanzas, making clear the importance of his summary of the points made in each. His stance is that of a barrister arguing a case, each stanza concluding with summation. In the first stanza, the speaker points out in the conclusion that the flea has already enjoyed the lovers’ fluids, “And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,” adding that it is a shame that the lovers will not do the same: “And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.”
The second stanza begins with a second plea, this to save the life of the flea. The speaker projects concern that the woman has moved to kill the pest, which she sees as no more than vermin. As some critics note, the three stanzas offer readers a miniature drama, as between each stanza, the speaker engages the silent partner. Feminist critics mark with interest the silence of the female, who nevertheless assumes power over the speaker through her ability to act.
The speaker beseeches, “Oh, stay, three lives in one flea spare, / When we almost, nay more than married are.” When he bids her “stay,” or stop, he tries to convince her that the flea must be spared because it represents their union or marriage. Donne adopts marriage as a conceit, represented in an unusual manner through the actions of a mere flea. Because marriage was a holy sacrament, Donne flouts the need for religious approval before sex between willing partners may occur. He adopts elevated terminology, such as the biblical reference to the human body as a temple, to advance his ironic and playful tone, equating the “marriage bed” with a “marriage temple.” The man tells the woman that, while she and her parents may “grudge” the fact, the young lovers have become a married pair, via the flea.
In the concluding three lines of stanza 2, the speaker equates killing the flea to a double murder and suicide, with suicide a mortal sin. He suggests that act would then constitute a greater sacrilege than their having sex:
Though use make thee apt to kill me,
Let not to this, self murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
The first couplet in stanza 3 makes clear the speaker’s argument has failed, as the murder he had feared has occurred. Donne includes imagery of the flea’s blood, enriched to a purple color by the human blood his body contains: “Cruell and sodaine, has though since / Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?” The speaker melodramatically labels his lover’s act both cruel and violent, the meaning of the word sodaine. The speaker continues to maintain the flea’s innocence, again suggesting that the mingling of the lovers’ fluids should not be censured. The fact that the offender could be dispatched by a mere fingernail maintains the emphasis on the tiny, but complete, world that Donne has attempted to create in his representation of the flea. He wrote in the tradition of “man as microcosm,” extending that idea to the tiny flea. The speaker must admit that his love has won, “thou triumph’st,” in making clear that neither she nor the speaker remains weakened by the blood loss, symbolic for his own loss of the argument. However, in a final desperate attempt to convince his love, the speaker cleverly turns even the flea’s death to his favor, suddenly acknowledging that the loss has minimal results, as would his love’s loss of her virginity:
’Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to me,
Will wast, as this fl ea’s death tooke life from thee.
What she will lose in honor equates to what the world has lost in the death of one fl ea. This popular poem may be found in both print and electronic forms.
Baumlin, James S. John Donne and the Rhetorics of Renaissance Discourse. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
Chambers, E. K., ed. Poems of John Donne. Vol. 1. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896.