The Flea. By John Donne

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1 The Flea By John Donne

2 The Flea What do we understand from the title of the poem?

3 Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is; It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; Thou know st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor 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 marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met, And cloistered 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 honour, when thou yield st to me, Will waste, as this flea s death took life from thee.

4 AO3: Context

5 Metaphysical poet John Donne Donne was born into a Roman Catholic family at a time when the religion was illegal in England. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge but because of his faith he could not receive a degree. His brother was arrested for harbouring a Catholic priest and died of bubonic plague whilst in prison. During and after his education, Donne spent much of his considerable inheritance on women, literature, pastimes and travel. At the age of 25, he was appointed chief secretary to Sir Thomas Edgerton and promptly eloped with his niece. This ruined his career and led to a spell in prison and a life of poverty with his new wife. She bore him 16 children, dying in childbirth after 12 years of marriage. He never remarried. Donne himself died in 1631, probably of stomach cancer. At that time, he had given up the Catholic faith and had become a famous preacher in the Anglican church.

6 Donne s Poetry Donne s poetry was written for patrons: wealthy benefactors who would repay his work with gifts and money. His poetry went through three stages: 1. The young Jack Donne a lustful, cynical persona. The Flea was written during this stage. 2. The courting/married lover reflected by a Neoplatonic idea of transcendental love (cf. Sonnet 116) but also founded in the physical. 3. Dr. Donne, Dean of St. Paul s Cathedral religious poetry and prose. Donne s poetry was famous for combining sexual and religious ideas, using a conceit (an unusual metaphor) to bring his different ideas together. Metaphysical Poetry: A conceit is used, bringing together two vastly different ideas into a single idea The theme is emphasised by fantastic metaphors and hyperbole Sensuality is blended with philosophy; passion with intellect The form is often an argument of some sort Donne s poetry broke from the conventional values of Elizabethan (Petrarchan) love poetry by echoing the words and imagery of common speech. As a contemporary of Shakespeare, it is interesting to note how different his poetry is.

7 So what s all this got to do with a flea?

8 wingless insects with mouthparts adapted for piercing skin and sucking blood. The flea body is hard, polished, and covered with many hairs and short spines directed backward, which also assist its movements on the host. The tough body is able to withstand great pressure, likely an adaptation to survive attempts to eliminate them by mashing or scratching. Fleas were a common part of everyday life. Due to a lack of regular washing or changing of clothes people and animals often suffered from insect bites from fleas and ticks. Fleas jump from person to person, often taking blood from more than one source. The flea an erotic symbol? At this time it was thought that sexual intercourse involved a mingling of the blood. The Donne poem exists within a long European tradition of insects swarming the necks and bosoms and underskirts of ladies, exciting the male observer who can only dream of going to such locations on the body of his lady. Conventionally the poems usually revolve around the male poet imagining himself as the flea freedom of access, as well as appetite, on female untouched flesh. 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. Marlowe s Doctor Faustus: I am like to Ovid s flea, I can creep into every corner of a wench.

9 'The Flea Hunt' by Gerrit van Honthorst

10 AO2: Language

11 Mark = look at/ notice Mark in this suggests that the flea is a symbol or conceit Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is; Ambiguity is created here what is it that he is denied? What is the poet saying here? But here means only, so mark but suggests that the thing the speaker wants his lover to notice is something small or inconsequential. How does this link to the second line?

12 It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; What is the poet saying here? How does our AO3 knowledge help us interpret the conceit of the poem? What does the two bloods mingled refer to? Why might it be significant that he was sucked first? [Hint: think about gender roles at the time the poem was written.]

13 Thou know st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead, Virginity / reputation as a maid or maiden What is the poet saying here? We see the start of Donne s argument here: the mingling of blood inside the flea is like the mingling of blood during sex. In fact, it s the same. Why does he mention sin and shame and loss of maidenhead here? What is he trying to convince his lover of? What sort of language is this? What is its effect?

14 Wooing or courting the precursor to marriage The flea here is personified: it can enjoy and is pampered Yet this enjoys before it woo, And pampered swells with one blood made of two, And this, alas, is more than we would do. Hyperbolic language What is the poet saying here? What is the flea enjoying? Think literally and metaphorically. Now extend this metaphor to swells with one blood made of two what could this be a reference to? Donne complains that the flea is doing more than he gets to, with less effort! What tone would you describe this stanza as having?

15 Stay = stop! Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, Where we almost, nay more than married are. What is the poet saying here? The speaker tells the lover to stay or stop what she is about to do kill the flea then follows this with a plea to spare three lives. Whose? What link can we make to religion with this image? How does this help progress Donne s argument that they more than married are? AO3: in the times before the circulatory system was understood, blood was thought to be moved around the body by a person s soul or spirit. How does this add to our understanding of three lives in one flea?

16 This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is; What is the poet saying here? Donne now moves to the next stage of his argument: the flea represents their marriage bed and marriage temple! The couple are joined in the flea, thus, the flea is at once a metaphor for their bodies' union in marriage, the mixture of blood in the marriage s consummation, and also a physical space in which all this is contained (the temple). temple is another example of religious language used to support Donne s argument. This is a holy union.

17 Grudge = an unwillingness. Her parents (and her) are not keen on him. Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met, And cloistered in these living walls of jet. The flea his body is jet black What is the poet saying here? What is the significance of the word cloistered? What connotations does it have and how does it add to Donne s argument? Cloisters

18 Use = habit/ custom (the natural urge to swat a flea) Though use make you apt to kill me, Let not to that, self-murder added be, And sacrilege, three sins in killing three. Self-murder = suicide What is the poet saying here? How does Donne extend the three lives in one image here? Why is it significant that he says she will kill him ( me ) first? Why would it be sacrilege to kill the flea? Sacrilege: violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred.

19 Blood was often referred to as purple rather than red Cruel and sudden, hast thou since Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence? What is the poet saying here? What has she done in between stanzas 2 and 3? How does the speaker feel about this? [Hint: look for some hyperbolic language.] How does blood of innocence continue the religious imagery of the poem? [Hint: consider the significance of nail here, too.]

20 Wherein could this flea guilty be, Except in that drop which it sucked from thee? What is the poet saying here? Donne shifts his argument once again: the blood that in stanzas 1 and 2 was so important is now just a drop. At the same time, he extends the idea of the flea being innocent and therefore that killing it was a sin. Note: once again he asks his lover a question, but we never hear her reply. This is all about him and what he wants.

21 Yet thou triumph st, and say'st that thou Find st not thy self, nor me the weaker now; What is the poet saying here? We do get some idea of what the woman is saying, as Donne reports it to us: she feels that she has triumphed over his argument (that killing the flea would be like killing them both). She has killed the flea and neither of them are any weaker for it. Do you think Donne will accept the defeat of his argument? Let s find out

22 Tis true; then learn how false fears be: Just so much honour, when thou yield st to me, Will waste, as this flea s death took life from thee. What is the poet saying here? Yield = to give in or surrender (to his argument and/ or physically) Tis true he seems to be accepting that she was right and his claims about the flea were wrong. However, what is the significance of the next words: then learn? Yes, he s changing his argument once again. Tis true simply brushes aside her triumph and replaces it with his own: learn how false fears be. This paradox is intended to wrong-foot her. What false fear might she have? [Hint: look at the next line honour and though yield st to me.]

23 Alliteration here links her fear and his dismissal of it Tis true; then learn how false fears be: Just so much honour, when thou yield st to me, Will waste, as this flea s death took life from thee. He unites them in rhyme, even if not in real life What is the poet saying here? Donne s final argument is that the destruction of his earlier claims prove how little there is to lose by having sex with him. When she yields to his seduction, she will learn that the amount of honour she will lose is the same as that which she lost by killing the flea. None. This simile suggests that just as her life was preserved, so will be her honour. The poem ends before she gets a chance to respond.

24 AO2: Imagery

25 The flea an erotic symbol? Donne has used as his starting point a highly conventional theme; by the end of the poem we can now see how unconventional his treatment of it is. The flea becomes something more than a metaphor for a physical act. It becomes religious in nature. The flea a religious symbol? The flea is personified (line 8: pampered ) as well as acting as a metonym, equating blood with life (line 10). In the second stanza, it becomes a metaphor for a sacred and consecrated ritual: marriage. It represents marriage as it contains the blood of both of them two have become one. Blood here is a sort of pun, as the act of sex was thought to mingle blood, but we also talk metaphorically of mixing blood lines when people procreate. The three-in-one also alludes to the Holy Trinity, reinforcing the sacred nature of the flea. It even becomes a cloister or temple, within which the marriage takes place, and to kill it would be a mortal sin. However, when the woman does kill the flea, its death (and the preservation of her life) proves that she will retain her honour if she has sex with the speaker. Donne uses it as suits his shifting argument.

26 AO2: Form / Structure

27 Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is; It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; Thou know st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor 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. Can you identify the rhyme scheme? 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 marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met, And cloistered 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 honour, when thou yield st to me, Will waste, as this flea s death took life from thee.

28 Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is; It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; Thou know st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor 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 marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met, And cloistered 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 honour, when thou yield st to me, Will waste, as this flea s death took life from thee. A A B B C C D D D A A B B C C D D D A A B B C C D D D

29 Meter - stresses Mark but this flea, and mark in this, 4 How little that which thou deniest me is; 5 It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, 4 And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; 5 Thou know st that this cannot be said 4 A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead, 5 Yet this enjoys before it woo, 4 And pampered swells with one blood made of two, 5 And this, alas, is more than we would do. 5 4 stresses: iambic tetrameter 5 stresses: iambic pentameter Each stanza is regular in rhyme scheme and meter, being made up of couplets and a triplet at the end. Donne is presenting a shifting and complex argument, so he does it in rhyming couplets and with a regular meter to help us follow it. Every time we get a new rhyme, we get a new idea. He keeps it simple to mask his manipulation of his lover.

30 Caesura: Another thing that enables us (and Donne s lover) to follow his shifting argument is his use of caesura to slow down the pace of the poem. Note how many there are. These pauses allow more time for the seeds of doubt and temptation to slip into the woman s mind, and they help him to turn his argument around when needed. Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is; It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea our two bloods mingled be; Thou know st that this cannot be said A sin, nor shame, nor 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 marriage bed, and marriage temple is; Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met, And cloistered 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 honour, when thou yield st to me, Will waste, as this flea s death took life from thee.

31 AO4/5: Links and Interpretations

32 AO5: typography This is an image of the first stanza as it appeared in the Poems volume of Look closely at line 3. How does the typography (typical of the time) add a visual pun to our reading of the poem? opens the poem... to an immediately titillating ambiguity -- Thomas Docherty Do you agree?

33 Donne s poetry does not demean women but in fact acknowledges and appreciates all of their capabilities. This interaction is one between equally intelligent persons, each one challenging the other playfully in the midst of their romance. Though there is only one speaker, her silent voice booms. She holds her own in this game and keeps him on his toes in a humorous competition between lovers. In her refusal to be swayed by his tactics she causes him to go back and rework the way he makes his argument. -- Amanda Boyd What does this statement add to our understanding of the poem? Do you agree?

34 AO1: What kind of love is presented in this poem? Think about: The characteristics of love The representation of the people involved The feelings of the speaker Any imagery or language used The way the structure and form reflects this You can either: Write a side of A4 to explain your answer. Write a detailed plan of your answer. Make sure you include and analyse quotations from the text.

35 Fill in your CLIFS sheet for this poem. Remember, this will be a revision aid!