The Flea

An erotic joke

The Flea is an erotic joke poem, rather like The Dreame. A certain amount of the dramatic context is given, but the main force of the poem lies in the persuasive skill of the poet to move the lady to making love with him by using outrageous analogies. In his persuasion, he uses philosophic and theological conceits, which is what we need to appreciate in order to enjoy the poem fully.

Two bloods mingled

FleaFleas, of course, were a common feature of life in Elizabethan times (as in most other times), especially when bedding got changed rarely and few people bathed regularly. Donne manages to use the more unpleasant aspect of the flea's bloodsucking to his advantage. In the first of the three stanzas, he merely uses the flea as an analogy for union. In his more serious love poetry, as in The Extasie, the lovers' union is spiritual in the first place. Here it is purely physical. The conceit is that the flea has united their blood by biting both of them. Ironically, this is more union than the poet feels is likely to happen between him and his lady friend.

To kill the flea would be sacrilege

In stanza 2, she is going to squash the flea. The poet urges her to spare it, using theological arguments. The ‘three lives in one' of the flea (her blood, his and its) is a clear reference to the Christian idea of the Trinity. The flea is seen as their marriage ‘temple', which it would be ‘sacrilege' to destroy. The idea of a physical body being a temple appears in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 3:17).

More on temple: see Man by George Herbert

‘Sacrilege' is where something seen as holy in a religion is destroyed. So if she were to kill the flea, she would be killing him (an example of synecdoche, since the flea has a drop of the poet's blood, which then symbolises him altogether); she would be committing suicide (again synecdochically); and she would be committing sacrilege. There is also the Christian teaching that any sexual union is a making into ‘one flesh' (1 Corinthians 6:16, derived from Genesis 2:24), even if the union is only with a prostitute.

What's the problem?

‘O well, here goes,' she obviously says. Then asks, ‘What's the big deal?' when it's done, thinking she has outwitted the poet. But, of course, it's not easy to outwit a lawyer, and Donne makes sure he gets the last word. If squashing the flea is such a slight thing, he argues by analogy, then any loss of honour due to having sex with me, or getting married to me (as stanza 2 suggests in ‘though parents grudge') is about as insignificant as the flea's death.

Investigating The Flea
  • Pick out words in The Flea which suggest that a logical argument or dialogue is going on.
    • How does the poet still keep the verse light-hearted?
    • In what way is the flea ‘you and I … and our marriage bed'?
  • Compare The Flea to The Dreame
    • What are the biggest differences?
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