The Flea

Whenever viewing erotic paintings, John Donne’s The Flea springs to my mind. In this intriguingly lusty poem, a flea engineers a consummation between a clandestine couple by mingling their blood it sucks in its own body.

I feel like that sneaky flea, serving as an intermediary between the fateful lovers, and being complicit in the sexual affair whilst not actively engaging in it. Then I check the distance between the painting and me – the discreet distance that prevents any hypnotized ones from absorbing too further and caressing the painting without noticing.

It is safe to consider myself a very ‘sexual’ person, and so this poem has become one of my ultimate favorites. The thing is, any poetry lover would easily notice how Donne evoked eroticism in The Flea without explicitly referring to sex. That’s more than what my mind can take or make.

John Donne and his pointy beard. Portrait by Isaac Oliver

John Donne and his pointy beard.
Portrait by Isaac Oliver

Metaphysical poets such as John Donne tend to be more concerned with analyzing their feelings than actually expressing them. They use bold and elaborate metaphors, paradox, a mixture of subtle and complex thought, and direct language filled with the dramatic overtones one would find in everyday speech. Donne is famous for being very present in his poetry, giving the illusion that he is standing behind the speaker directing him what to say. The speaker in his poems is always amid intense emotions; so the poem tends to flow the way a person would feel as they are experiencing some event.

The Flea

Marke 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;
Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,

Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

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,
And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.

Though use make thee apt to kill me,
Let not to this, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.

Cruell and sodaine, has thou since
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;

‘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.

 

 

So how have fleas been incorporated into poetry?

No one really knows when the first sensual flea showed up in a poem. But one of the early flea poems, which some believe was written by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD), was described as a widely popular, ribald Latin poem on fleas. Apparently, the poem was a trendsetter for fleas and sexual innuendo, because a number of poems from medieval times follow that general theme… and so the flea was seen as an erotic insect in the medieval times.

John Donne’s The Flea is outright lustful – and I love it. It is remarkable for its emotional intensity. In short, The Flea, is a remarkable lyric; remarkable for its realism, for its emotional intensity and for the ingenuity with which Donne has argued the case for physical union without any social inhibitions.

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