Valentine’s Day: The Flea

The Flea
By John Donne

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed and mariage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met,
And cloisterd in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

It was with complete shock that I first heard John Donne’s love poetry being called “ironic”.

While he certainly subvert images and themes, I would never apply a term so associated with cynicism to Donne’s warm, teasing lyrics. Here, Donne is at his most delightfully absurd. The flea, so horrid and icky – that is a technical poetic term – becomes a symbol of the love between two people.

While his choice of vehicle is odd and somewhat off-putting, that alone convinces me of the sincerity at the heart of poem. He clutches at the first thing he see as inspiration to keep his beloved his near him longer, to awkwardly confess his love and “marry” her, like any normal, brilliant young lover. Granted, his awkwardness is confined only to his choice of symbol, but John Donne handles the narrative so well that he can be forgiven for his smoothness. He can find romance – of  both the Chestertonian and flowery kind – in the ordinary details that surround him. His metaphor is rooted in the physical reality of the world, but it incorporates the practical accidents of Love.

The tone is slightly serious, as Donne takes his loves with incredible intensity. But what lover, to whom this is addressed, could help but laugh? Clearly, she does not quite take him seriously, as she squashes the flea. But at the same time, how could resist such poetic strivings for intimacy?

Also, this poem is simply a joy and delight hear read aloud! A good reader makes this both hilarious and swoon worthy.

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2 thoughts on “Valentine’s Day: The Flea

  1. Pingback: Mel’s Meme: You Have Stolen My Heart « Egotist's Club

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