A close reading of The Flea

A close reading of 'The Flea'

The suitor in 'The Flea' enviously describes the creature that ‘sucks’ on his mistress’s skin and intermingles its fluids with hers. Here Aviva Dautch explores images of eroticism, death, guilt and innocence in John Donne's poem.

Fleas were a popular subject for ribald humour during the Renaissance. The creatures were everywhere in both real life and in erotic poetry (inspired by the writing of the Roman poet Ovid) – their ability to freely roam ladies’ flesh making them the envy of John Donne’s poetic narrator as well as many others. Since 17th-century society viewed sex as the mingling of bloods, the flea’s bloodsucking nature had huge possibilities as a risqué metaphor. Donne's poem is composed of three stanzas of nine lines. The first six lines in each stanza are made from three rhyming couplets, while the last three lines of each is a triplet. In this way Donne’s form mirrors his content as three distinctly separate entities – man, woman and flea – become one.

First edition of John Donne's Poems, 1633

First editon of John Donne's Poems, 1633

‘The Flea’ as it was first printed, with the long ‘s’ looking like an ‘f’.

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In the first stanza, Donne outlines his reasoning to his prospective lover: this flea has bitten both of us and so our blood is inside it; even though we wouldn’t dare mix our blood by having sex, our blood is already intermingled within the flea. The exact date of its composition is uncertain but it’s probable that John Donne wrote this poem in the 1590s, long before he became a respectable and respected religious figure as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, perhaps when he was a young law student at Lincoln’s Inn, sniggering in the back row with his friends. There are moments in this stanza that do feel like the work of a naughty schoolboy daring to be rude. Since at the time the letter ‘s’ when written at the beginning of a word became longer typographically, looking more like the letter ‘f’, the visual pun of line three, ‘Me it suck'd first, and now sucks thee’, could explicitly allude to exactly what the narrator thought the flea was doing and he himself wished to be doing… And it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that the way the insect ‘swells’ with blood in line eight, is an allusion to a man’s erection.

Portrait of John Donne, c. 1595

Portrait of John Donne, c. 1595

‘The Flea’ was probably written around the time when Donne was living as a young man-about-town at the Inns of Court in London.

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However, what follows makes clear that the poem is more sophisticated both technically and in content than merely a series of vulgar puns, riffing on religious imagery to drive home its point. While the opening lines of the second stanza seem to suggest that the mingling of blood inside the flea makes the narrator and the woman he is wooing ‘more than maryed’, rather than a full-rhyme there is a dissonant half-rhyme which seems to undermine his argument, as if he knows it’s false even as he’s making it:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
When we almost, nay more than maryed are. [My italics]

Donne is playing with Christian imagery of the Holy Trinity, the Eucharist and the sacrament of marriage in an attempt to make things respectable; yet however much the narrator might strain to achieve it, ‘spare’ and ‘are’ don’t quite rhyme and no, the flea’s actions don’t make the couple married. Donne, who spent time in prison for falling in love with and illicitly marrying Ann More, is someone who fully understood what it was like to be in an unconventional relationship, committing to a woman whose family didn’t approve, and so the image of the couple using the inside of a flea, somewhere unexpected, somewhere ‘cloysterd’, as their marriage bed, ‘though parents grudge’ is full of pathos as well as being intentionally, hilariously bathetic.

Letters from John Donne about his secret marriage to Ann More

Letters from John Donne about his secret marriage to Ann More

On 12 February 1602, Donne wrote this letter from Fleet Prison to his employer, Sir Thomas Egerton, pleading with him to ‘excuse’ his secret marriage to Ann More.

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As the poem draws to its conclusion it is full of images of death: ‘make thee apt to kill me’, ‘self-murder’, as the lady-love purples her nail when she squashes the creature. This could be maudlin if it weren’t for the fact that in the Jacobean period all of these phrases about death were euphemisms for orgasm, the petit mort, or little death as it was known. Not only does this enable the poet to make a whole range of innuendoes, but it also shifts his train of thought: faced with the flea’s extinction he comes up with a new rationale for his seduction – just as you didn’t lose your life when the flea died, you won’t experience much loss of honour if you surrender your virginity.

Works by John Donne and Ben Jonson in the Newcastle Manuscript

Works by John Donne and Ben Jonson in the Newcastle Manuscript

‘The Flea’ seems to have been popular in the early 17th century. It was often hand-copied into commonplace books and manuscript collections, like this one made for the first Duke of Newcastle.

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One of the most compelling things about Donne’s poetry is his ability to bridge seemingly oppositional ideas and tones with ease. It makes his writing feel very immediate and fresh, even though several hundred years old. Since the beginning of the 20th century, poets and critics have highlighted what they view as the modernity of the metaphysical poets and drawn inspiration from them. In 1912, scholar and critic Herbert Grierson edited a two-volume edition of the poems of John Donne, published by Oxford University Press.[1] To give just one instance of how this book was valued by writers at the time, when war poet Isaac Rosenberg enlisted in 1916, he left for the front without taking any clothes or mementos from home; all he carried with him was his copy of Donne’s poetry.[2] Isaac Rosenberg’s poem, ‘Louse Hunting’, is clearly influenced by Donne, and perhaps its greatest strength is its wicked humour, describing:

… a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat
With oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.

Drawn from real experience, the poem articulates a scene Rosenberg first recounted in a letter to Gordon Bottomley: ‘Last night we had a funny hunt for fleas. All stripped by candlelight some Scots dancing over the candle & burning the fleas, & the funniest, drollest and dirtiest scenes of conversation ever imagined’.[3] It is clearly indebted to ‘The Flea’, a poem that ‘maidenhead’, if not ‘Godhead’, might ‘shrink at’; Donne’s poem influenced both insect as subject matter and the ironic tone.

'Break of Day in the Trenches' by Isaac Rosenberg

Rosenberg wrote his poems in the army on whatever scraps of paper he could find. He sent this manuscript of ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ to George Bottomley, a prominent literary figure.

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Held by © Bernard Wynick and Shelley Swade (Joint Literary Executors and Copyright Holders)

Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, a poem Paul Fussell identifies as ‘the greatest poem of the First World War’,[4] owes even more to ‘The Flea’. Donne’s creature is a conduit between male and female, ‘in this flea our two bloods mingled be’, and the locus of the combination of opposites – guilt and innocence (‘in blood of innocence? / Wherein could this flea guilty be’), falsity and honour (‘then learn how false, fears be: / Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me’ and death and life (‘this flea’s death took life from thee’). Harold Bloom, whose thematic analysis of Isaac Rosenberg’s poems in his book on Poets of World War One acknowledged that ‘Rosenberg, like many of the First World War poets, was heavily influenced by Metaphysical poets’, was the first to suggest that the rat in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ (the title an homage to Donne’s ‘Break of Day’) ‘calls to mind the imagery used by John Donne in his poem ‘‘The Flea’’’.[5] Rosenberg’s rat, with its ‘cosmopolitan sympathies’ crosses between the German and Allied soldiers:

Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between

Like Donne’s flea, the rat is a locus for the heretical and ephemeral; addressing the creature, Rosenberg exclaims, ‘they would shoot you if they knew’. Donne’s flea is external to, and other than, the man and woman it bites; Rosenberg’s rat is a ‘live thing’ running between the two opposing and entrenched sides of the conflict. Yet for both writers, to an extent, their creature is also a placeholder for the narrator of the poem. Donne’s suitor lasciviously implies that he too wishes to be a creature that ‘sucks’ on his mistress’s skin, who intermingles fluids with her: ‘this, alas, is more than we would do’. So too, the ‘droll rat’, the ‘queer, sardonic rat’, can be read as a figure for Rosenberg, or at least the soldier who speaks his poem in the first person.

Micrographia by Robert Hooke, 1665

Micrographia by Robert Hooke, 1665

This astonishingly detailed illustration of a flea fills a huge fold-out page, 43x33cm. It is part of Robert Hooke’s book of objects seen through a microscope, published 34 years after Donne’s death.

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T S Eliot appreciated Donne for his ability to select the ‘image of absolute necessity’,[6] and it is this sense of the importance of the precise and necessary image whose connotations will be thoroughly explored and every nuance drawn out that Donne passes onto Rosenberg. In this way, Donne’s seemingly casual erotic poem therefore becomes the inspiration of an incredibly serious war poem, his metaphysical conceit the model for modern writers to draw on.

Footnotes

[1] John Donne and Herbert John Clifford Grierson, The Poems of John Donne (London: Oxford University Press, 1912).

[2] Letters from Isaac Rosenberg to Edward Marsh and Sydney Schiff, November 1915, in Isaac Rosenberg and Jean Liddiard, Isaac Rosenberg: Selected Poems and Letters (London: Enitharmon in association with EJPS, 2003).

[3] Rosenberg and Liddiard, Selected Poems and Letters.

[4] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[5] Harold Bloom, Poets of WW1: Wilfred Owen & Isaac Rosenberg (Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002).

[6] ‘Clark Lecture IV’ in T S Eliot and Ronald Schuchard, The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 1993).

  • Aviva Dautch
  • Dr Aviva Dautch is a poet, literary critic and curator. As an academic, she specialises in the Renaissance and Modernist periods, with a PhD in Modern Metaphysical Poetry, and has taught English Literature and Creative Writing at the British Library since 2007. She is Poet in Residence at the Jewish Museum, London, her poems, reviews and literary essays are widely published internationally in journals and magazines, and she has recently received an award from Brandeis University to complete her first full collection of poetry, ‘We Sigh For Houses’.

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