John Donne’s Seductive Flea

Georges de La Tour, Woman Catching a Flea, c. 1638. Oil on canvas. Georges de La Tour, Woman Catching a Flea, c. 1638. Oil on canvas.

In case you haven’t heard, the news media was buzzing last week over a CBS interview with President Obama where he nailed a fly that was bothering him. I thought I’d have fun in today’s entry and talk about the symbolic use that poets have made of small winged creatures.

But first, a discussion of the symbolic significance of Obama’s fly-swatting. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “The moment may have resonated so much because some Americans fear that President Obama is too prone to negotiation, comity and splitting the difference, that he could have been tougher on avaricious banks and vicious Iranian dictators.” Dowd then goes on to fantasize that Obama has a hidden killer streak: “If only the president could be so brazen about pushing through gay rights and health care.”

Emily Dickinson and John Donne have both written far-out poems about tiny pests. Donne writes about a flea, Dickinson about a fly. I’ll write about Donne’s poem today, Dickinson’s tomorrow.

The outlandishness of the subject matter gives the poems their kick. Donne works his flea into a seduction poem. He imagines that a flea has bitten first him and then his mistress, whom he is trying to persuade to go all the way. Their commingled blood means, he says, that they have all but had sexual intercourse. The poem is rife with sexual images of swelling and commingling and dying (which is to say, climaxing):


Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
Me it suck’d first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled bee;
Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
When we almost, nay more than maryed 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 cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.
Though use make thee apt to kill me,
Let not to this, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.

Cruell and sodaine, has thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
In what could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and saist that thou
Find’st not thyself, nor mee the weaker now;
‘Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee.

Stanza 1 indicates that the commingling of blood, which is what the two of them would do if they had intercourse, is no big deal when it happens in the flea. There is no “sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead.” Making love would be no more than a fleabite.

Then, in stanza 2, the poet makes it a big deal. We are practically married in this flea, he says. This flea “our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.” We are “cloystrd in these living walls of jet.” If you kill it, you kill the three of us.

The woman kills the flea anyway and points out that the poet is being melodramatic. After all, neither is the weaker now, as they would be if they themselves had “died.” The poet then shifts tactics and, while acknowledging this to be true, argues that, therefore, having sex will be no big deal either. The lady won’t lose any more honor than she lost blood to the flea.

In the film Dead Poets Society, teacher Robin Williams tells his students that the purpose of poetry is to woo women. Will this poem do the trick? If the woman demands logic in her wooing, maybe not. But if she finds humor and wit to be sexy—and often they are—well then, maybe it will work. Love conversations are hard, and by talking obliquely about what he is after, the poet treads smartly through the minefield of sexual request and rejection. He knows he’s making an outlandish argument and he knows that she knows—they are in on the joke together. Maybe that is enough to get her to let down her resistance.

Life seems richer when we can find wit, humor, and symbolism in tiny things like fleas and flies. Obama may spend much of his time laboriously working on legislation, but we get to humorously imagine him cutting through the complexities of governing in his rendezvous with a fly. Playing with the small stuff of life can give us a healthy perspective on the big stuff.

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One Comment

  1. Julia Bates
    Posted June 26, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I remember feeling boxed in as you came up with all kinds of reasons for sex. I kept coming up with virtue, but in the end that wasn’t enough, evidently.

2 Trackbacks

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