Love in To His Coy Mistress and The Flea
Both 'To His Coy Mistress', by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) and 'The
Flea', by John Donne (1572-1631) present different attitudes to love.
Both are also structured very differently and occasionally use
contrasting imagery. Each poem was written in the 17th century, just
after the Renaissance. The poets were metaphysical poets. Although the
'metaphysic' was originally a derogatory term, metaphysical poetry
used intellectual and theological concepts in an ingenious way.
Metaphysical poetry was partly written in rebellion against the highly
conventional Elizabethan love poetry just prior to the time.
Conventional love poetry what one would generally expect of a love
poem. A perhaps typical love poem of the era would have been: 'Shall I
Compare Thee To A Summer's Day,' by William Shakespeare (16th sonnet)
where lavish compliments and imagery are used to flatter. 'The Flea'
and 'To His Coy Mistress', however, are very unconventional and like
most metaphysical poetry are the complete opposite of what a reader
might expect of love poetry. The poems do this by using the
'metaphysical conceit', where an elaborate metaphor or simile is used
to present an unusually apt parallel between dissimilar things or
feelings. This is shown especially in 'The Flea'. The poems also
tended to challenge conventional rhythm, using a ragged, irregular
The consummation of love is presented as a tiny, insignificant
creature in 'The Flea', through one basic central image. The imagery
symbolises the act of love to make it seem trivial, this being the
speaker's main argument. This implies that love is not particularly
important, that it will mean no loss of 'maidenhead' (L.6) for the
lover, but is ironic, as the consummation of their love obviously is
very important to the speaker. Also, as their bloods are already
'mingled' (L.4) in the flea, her virginity is not immensely valuable.
This links with the 17th century idea that women became pregnant when
the blood of the man mixed with her blood during sexual intercourse.¹
In contrast, Marvell's use of imagery is more complex, in a way, as he
uses many different concepts to persuade. However, like the image of
the flea, the image of worms that will 'try' (L.27) the Coy Mistress
in death is very unconventional. It presents the attitude that the act
of love is completely necessary in a relationship. The phallic imagery
is used in a threatening way as worms are generally associated with
earth and tombs, which corresponds to the idea of death.
The notion of time is used as the basis for the argument in 'To his
Coy Mistress'. Marvell manipulates the idea of time in different ways.
In the first stage of the poem he uses time, as he flatters the Coy
Mistress, to suggest that love is a timeless pleasure, and that...