Poet's Pick April 9
John Donne: "The Flea"
Selected by Esteban Rodríguez
National Poetry Month 2018

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Esteban Rodríguez's Poetry Month Pick, April 9, 2018

"The Flea"
by John Donne (1572–1631)

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 honor, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.



* Esteban Rodríguez Comments:
I first read “The Flea” in high school, and needless to say the speaker’s erotic intentions went over my head (just as the nuance of a lot of seemingly romantic literature and interactions did during those years). A decade later, I came face to face with Donne’s poem again, only this time I had the responsibility to help my wife’s younger cousin (in high school) decipher its purpose and meaning. Although cliché to say I discovered something new upon rereading it, I’m glad to claim that I did, and in the weeks after, I returned to this poem christened with a more mature perspective.

I don’t particularly enjoy a whole lot of the work from the metaphysical poets, but “The Flea” for me reads differently, primarily because of the premise. The speaker is attempting to convince a woman to sleep with him by arguing that since a flea has bitten their flesh, and their blood mingles unencumbered in the flea’s body, they should not hesitate or feel ashamed in consummating their romance. I don’t know where this ranks in the history of bad pick-up lines, but from contemporary standards it deserves at least an honorable mention, and it’s this preposterousness that really drives the poem’s narrative and lyricism. The woman doesn’t surrender to his argument so easily, however, and despite the speaker’s repeated pleas for her not to kill the flea, and by extension him and their invented union, she does, destroying their “marriage temple.”

Perhaps this is what I like best about the poem; the speaker doesn’t get his way, and he’s left sulking in the “cruel and sudden” death of the flea. He further explains (in the last stanza) that the woman’s virginity, like the death of the flea, doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and she should at least be aware that if she did indeed have sex with him, it wouldn’t have changed who she was as a woman (the sort of the reasoning and response some might expect from a stereotypical teenage boy or young man).

There’s a lot to be said about modern interpretations of the poem, specifically what some see as the speaker’s aggressiveness veiled through Donne’s language as playful persistence. It’s worth discussing, but we should also applaud the poem’s ludicrous nature. It strikes a healthy balance between seriousness and humor, and if readers don’t take away either, then at least they can say they read something as ridiculous as it is unique, which, for poetry, is always refreshing.

Esteban Rodríguez:
Esteban Rodríguez’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Notre Dame Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, Washington Square Review, and Puerto del Sol. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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