This paper is an attempt to explore the metaphysical and the social evidence in John Donne’s poem “The Flea”. Representing the late 16th and the early 17th centuries, Donne has always stood out of the crowd due to his pioneering of and much effort in metaphysical poetry. “The Flea” is one of his best metaphysical poems.
In this poem, a flea sucks the blood of a couple, and the entire poem is about the speaker’s proposal for sex in a figurative manner. The speaker sounds very thoughtful, whereas his beloved is negligible. Moreover, the paper will contain some great thoughts on Donne and his poetry and will see their applicability in this poem.
In this poem, the speaker is waiting for approval of his beloved in making love. In doing so, he has drawn her attention to the flea that recently sucked the blood of the couple. The speaker says “how little”, but it is very much ambiguous, whether he means the flea or the sexual intercourse he demands. The flea sucked the blood of the speaker first and then that of his beloved. “And in this flea our two bloods mingle be”. They might not have any physical connection, but they have metaphysically become one in the body of the flea. The lines “Thou know’st that this cannot be said/ A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead” prove the speaker is being more erotic now, though he doesn’t openly reveal his wild desire.
When the beloved tries to squash the flea, the speaker stops her claiming that it contains three lives, and he calls it their marriage bed and marriage temple. In spite of their parents’ grudge, he doesn’t worry now because the flea has taken them too away from marriage, and has made them one. “cloistered in the living walls of jet” signifies they are in a strong bond which the parents can never force them split apart nor can they themselves willingly separate. He further claims, killing the flea means killing themselves, which implicitly means that they cannot live without one another’s company. But the beloved “purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence” anyway. The speaker demands “wherein this fly could guilty be?” She fears to have sexual intercourse with her lover, but she is bold enough to put an end to the life of the flea. Now, he declares she would lose no more honor if she slept with him that she lost when she killed the flea.
Dr. Samuel Johnson coined the term “Metaphysical Poets” to mean a certain group of English lyric poets of the 17th century. Johnson said the Metaphysical poets used strained and unnatural language in which “heterogeneous ideas were yoked by violence together”. Their topics generally happen to be either love or religion, or both and they use conceits. The word ‘meta’ means after and literally ‘Metaphysical’ means ‘after the physical’. By and large, metaphysics deals with questions that cannot be answered by science. It questions the nature of reality in a philosophical way. Donne set the metaphysical mode by writing poems which doesn’t sound mellifluous. His poems are also opposed to the fluid, regular versification of his contemporaries. He is realistic, ironic, and sometimes cynical in his treatment of the complexity of human motives, especially in the sexual relation. Whether that be serious or playful, whether about love or of religion, he has made ingenious use of paradox, pun and simile, and metaphor in his poems.
John Donne, for his poems, has got widespread comments. In Achsah-Guibbory-The Cambridge Composition to John Donne, entitled “Reading and rereading Donne’s poetry”, Judith Scherer Hertz says:
“‘The Flea’ a seduction poem of a lady who does not have that much horror to lose, the last line a bit of a sneer?” (104).
This is a metaphysical question, for the writer himself knows the answer and it is ‘yes’. The speaker has kept no stone unturned to convince his beloved for sex, though he is still failing in his mission.
In a patriarchal society, women are always regarded as inferior to men. The speaker himself is led by the patriarchy otherwise he wouldn’t say:
“Just so much honor, when this yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee”.
He seems to believe that when women have sexual relation they lose their honor and even when they kill an insect they lose their honor. Implicitly, if it had been for a man, killing and sexual intercourse would be symbols of bravery. Hertz adds:
“Donne seems more interested in finding out what he could do with the flea than what the flea could do for him” (104).
Donne has employed the utmost level of imagination and made the flea “our marriage bed, and marriage temple”, whereas other poets have put themselves in the place of a flea. The flea has sucked their blood, but more importantly, the speaker makes a metaphysical proof of their unity in the flea’s body and persuades the beloved for sex. In the same book, titled “Love, politics and the public world” the editor Achbah Guibbory complains:
“Elegies about ‘love’ and erotic desire are often also about politics, and not just the politics of bedroom. Sometimes the difficult argument and resonant language make us feel the poem is about something other than love” (142).
The same thing is applicable here in “The Flea”. The speaker is bold, knowledgeable and creative, whereas his beloved is passive, shy and unresponsive. Initially, she rejects the proposal, but God knows if the husband ended up raping her. Some might agree with John Donne’s portrayal of contemporary women with low regards, but the women’s picture is still the same in the present condition of gender relations. This poem is an example of the timelessness of art. Ilona Bell under the title “Gender Matters; the women in Donne’s poems” claims critics have called Donne:
“a misogynist who loathed women’s bodies and scorned their minds; a metaphysician less interested in emotion than in intellection; an egotist and careerist who used women for his own advantage” (176).
Even in this poem, the speaker seems to have a bad intention towards his beloved. He doesn’t directly express his desire for sex rather he says figuratively and makes a metaphysical connection. However, we cannot directly call him a misogynist because he portrayed the image of women in contemporary society. If it had been so, he wouldn’t have a woman’s company. His poetry should be understood in general, not in particular, and he definitely deserves respect for creating a visual image of the contemporary time, regarding gender relations.
Hence, John Donne has portrayed the husband-wife relationship which is by and large true, regarding their respective roles. The speaker has a patriarchal tone whereas the beloved is shy. As a whole, the poem presents the woman with low regards, whereas the speaker is sexually vibrant and intellectually talented.
Guibbory, Achsah. The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston: Thomson/Wordsworth Publisher, 2005