Seduction in John Donne's The Flea
Poetry is not only a brilliant form of expression, but also a powerful tool for persuasion. The renowned metaphysical poet John Donne uses the genre for this very purpose in “The Flea,” a work in which he encourages a young woman to have premarital sex with him. Donne backs his argument by referring to a flea that has sucked his own blood as well as his lover’s. In the first stanza Donne assures the woman that sleeping together would be a minor act. When he says “How little that which thou deniest me is” he promises the woman that the act would be as miniscule as the flea is in size (1.2). Also, by using the word “deniest” he tries to make the women feel a sense of guilt, as if she is depriving him of something that he is rightfully entitled to. He goes on to say that “in this flea, our two bloods mingled be” (1.4). As the footnotes point out, this borrows from a notion presented by Ovid that the mixing of bloods occurs during sexual intercourse. When Donne states that such an event is not “A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead” he is saying that there is no need to cast judgment on the mingling that has occurred. “Loss of maidenhead” implies losing virginity, so the speaker is telling the lady that she should not feel any guilt over such a thing. This would certainly contradict the cultural standards of the time, yet Donne plays it off as nothing to fret over.
In the second stanza Donne changes his attitude about the flea, deciding that it what has occurred within it is actually blessed and wonderful. He points out that there are “three lives in one flea,” referring to himself, his lady, and the flea (2.1). Instead of describing the flea as a repulsive, blood-sucking pest, Donne has decided to portray it as a miraculous union of three lives. He takes it a step further by stating that in the flea they “yea more than married are” (2.1). It is one thing to note that a flea contains two individuals’ blood, but to say that this union is greater than marriage is very extreme. Yet Donne executes this unlikely comparison with the utmost confidence, creating a surprisingly poignant argument. When the speaker says “though parents grudge,” he acknowledges that the woman’s parents (and society in general) would show great disapproval for such behavior (2.5). However, he replies that they are “cloistered in these walls of jet” (2.6). He describes their blood as secluded within the flea to remind his lady that they are also far away from any condemning parents. When the lady threatens to kill the flea, the speaker shows his opposition when he states “And sacrilege, three sins in killing three” (2.9). Once again, it seems strange to jump to the defense of a bothersome insect, but when we consider the flea as two lovers and the chamber that houses them it becomes more rational.