Essay: Flea-Bit Romance

Flea-Bit Romance

by A.D. Shaffer

{Graduate Studies; originally written for Humanities 530 Spring 2015}

John Donne is known for his ardent love affairs, and his metaphoric style of comparing two extreme opposites inside poetic flair. In the case of “The Flea,” Donne compares amatory love to that of a common lowly parasite implicating that lust is for all mankind no matter the class. The common flea bit lords as well as maids – consuming small portions of various people’s blood to survive. Bites were as common as affairs, and both could go discreetly unnoticed. Small amounts of blood intermix inside the flea much like small gestures and innuendos ignite lust inside man: “Mee it suck’d first, and now sucks thee, / And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee;” (Donne lines 3-4). The closeness Donne’s blood has with his lover’s blood is much more than she will relent to physically in the relationship.

The poem is an overall request to a lover to give in to Donne’s charms and consummate their love. He envies the flea that bit her because she hasn’t permitted Donne to be as close to her as the flea: “How little that which thou deny’st me is” (Donne line 2). Her blood is inside the flea with Donne’s blood, and he becomes envious of his own blood intermixing with hers: “And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two, / And this, alas, is more than wee would doe” (Donne lines 8-9).   This union between them inside the flea didn’t require sin or a lessening of self-worth – only fluid merged together inside a shell. Much like, he implies, their lovemaking would be a small secret union betwixt the two.

Donne relents envy for the flea, sainted now that their blood is one substance inside of the creature. He implores the flea’s life to be spared as it represents the closeness the two share: “This flea is you and I, and this / Our mariage bed, and mariage temple is” (Donne lines 12-13). The innuendo is that if they are married by blood inside the flea, then surely they could partake in a sexual relationship…since they are married, of sorts. Surely Donne had wine as well as charm to woo his mistresses. He calls for mercy on the flea, innocent save for bringing him and her together: “In what could this flea guilty bee, / Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?” (Donne lines 21-22). In that Donne would save the flea is a mockery of their relationship, a fear of his that he will never intermix fluids with her like this simple parasite easily did.

He continues to note that neither of them were lessened in anyway from the mere portion the flea took from them, yet they gained much by being bond together by blood. Donne wants his lover to feel that they are close enough, as displayed by this flea, that they may have sex without guilt. He means to imply that if she submits to him that her honor will not be lessened, not by a little bit of physical activity just like their beings were not lessened by the flea: “Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee, / Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee” (Donne lines 26-27).

“The Flea” is a sixteenth century rendition of manipulation for sexual intercourse. There is no flowery beauty inside this poem. Donne’s melancholy tone is rooted in his jealousy of the flea.   He aims to elicit sex from his lover out of pity. How could she treat him so negligently, to not permit him the same luxuries as a common bug. The commonness of the chosen subject implies that the particular instance is not the first time a flea has joined two persons. The regular habit of fleas biting people suggests that it is also common – and not a big deal – for men and women to sexually relate to one another. He assures her that no one will know of their relationship much like nobody knows about the flea marrying their blood together; therefore, her honor will remain intact.

Works Cited

Donne, John. “The Flea.” The Metaphysical Poets. Ed. Helen Gardner. New York:

Penguin Books, 1978. p. 57.

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