This close reading, is an analysis of “The Flea” by John Donne. “The Flea” is a love sonnet that uses a flea as a reason for the writer and the woman to get together. The flea is the main image of the poem, through which all of the metaphors and puns are woven around. When it comes down to it, the poem is about trying to get the woman in the poem into bed. The writer never comes out and just says that he wants to have sex with the woman, but that is exactly what a marriage bed is for. He does not want to scare her off with the blunt truth that having sex with him would be a terrible mistake. This close reading will demonstrate all of this and more by going through the poem line by line looking deeply into what each line is saying and how it is demonstrating it.
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In the first stanza, Donne uses extended metaphors to get his point across about the flea. The first stanza speaks of how the writer and the woman become one after being bitten by the flea. This stanza begins with “Mark but this flea, and mark in this,” which directs the attention of the woman towards the flea. He uses an apostrophe by speaking to a person outside the poem who cannot respond. “How little that which thou deniest me is,” she denies his sexual advances which means little to her. “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be,” the flea bites them both causing their blood to mix together inside the flea. “Blood” is used both literally and figuratively throughout the poem, which makes it a pun. Literally, that flea really does contain two people’s blood. Metaphorically, when two people procreate we call it mixing fluids, and the writer plays with this double meaning. The mixing of the blood cannot be a sin, or shame, or lose of virginity therefore; neither should it be for their other bodily to mix together, “A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.”
“Yet this enjoys before it woo,” the pleasure of the flea is a pun. The flea literally enjoys her blood, however to the writer, it also enjoys her in the erotic way like he wants to. “And pampered swells with one blood made of two,” the flea is lucky to be filled with their blood. This flea becomes larger in size with blood from both subjects. The flea has joined them together already by mixing their blood together which is more than he is asking of the woman, “And this, alas, is more than we would do.” The writer expresses shame and sadness for this flea. He speaks of the flea like it has sinned in its blood sucking ways which is more than he is asking the woman to do so they should just have sex.
The act of the biting flea happens prior to seduction; it accents the completion of gratification prior to the procreative stimulation indicated by “woo,” “pampered,” and “swells.” Hence, the poem changes its gesture of passion and focuses on the sexual pleasure, following a notable order; solicitation, swelling, copulation, then fulfillment. The flea, particularly “enjoys” the pleasure of sucking both male and female bodies. As a result of, the outburst “alas,” the writer regretfully indicates the flea can do more than he can do.
In the second stanza, the writer asks his woman, “Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,” as the woman moves in to kill the flea, he asks her to halt from the killing. The writer explains to the woman if she would please reserve the three lives which are now mixed within in the flea. The writer may be concluding that the three lives within the flea represent a father, mother, and baby. He constructs another analogy in this line, “Where we almost, yea more than married are.” In this he argues, their blood is mixed within the flea therefore they are no more than married. “This flea is you and I,” the flea has both of their blood inside it. “Our marriage bed, and marriage temple,” the flea is their sex and religion. Also, their supposed marriage is an extended metaphor which stems from the pun on two kinds of blood: literal blood and family relations. Mixing of bloodlines is what happens when you get married.
The writer confesses “Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met.” In spite of the fact that their parents object is not a reason for them not to have sex. He is suggesting that even though they cannot be in a romantic relationship, it should not affect her decision not to make love, “And cloistered in these living walls of jet.” Although their parents protest with resentment towards their romance, and she will not make love to him, contained within the flea is a place of religious solitude, where they are united as one. The writer extends the metaphor further by saying neither of their parents would approve of the union. The flea is compared to a church or cloister with black walls, in which the marriage ceremony takes place.
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Donne writes, “Though use make you apt to kill me,” even though you are almost certainly going to kill me. “Let not to that, self-murder added be,” he requests that she not kill the flea because she would be killing herself, the flea, and him. “And sacrilege, three sin in killing three,” and by killing the writer, the flea, and herself, she will commit three sins of theft and perverting what is sanctified. Since the flea is a temple of religion, should she kill this flea? Returning to the metaphor, the flea contains their lives, the writer alleges her of trying to commit a deadly sin by killing the flea. She would be killing him and committing suicide herself. Furthermore, she would defile the institution of marriage, by killing the marriage temple.
In the final stanza, “Cruel and sudden, hast thou since,” the writer calls the woman sadistic and rash in her actions to kill the flea without thinking. The regard to the woman as cruel means she is likely to take pleasure in the flea’s pain. The writer has redefined the flea. The flea has become a depiction of his own pain which he has endured because of her prohibition of sex. Through her prohibition she has been lacking of affection or sympathy. Alike the flea, she has behaved towards him lacking pause in denying him the gratifications of sex.
The writer speaks to the woman through rhetorical questions, “Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence,” has she sinned by spilling the blood of the innocent? Has she damned herself to hell by persecuting the flea? Oh, no! She kills the flea, but the magnificent rhetoric about the blood of innocence compares with the insignificance of a dot of blood on her fingernail. “Wherein could this flea guilty be, except in that drop which it sucked from thee?” What could the flea have done so badly, except sucking a little drop of blood from them?
“Yet thou triumph’st and say’st that thou/ Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now.” The woman retaliates, celebrating her success in killing the flea, makes neither him, nor her any less noble. The writer responds, “Tis true, then learn how false, fears be;” it is true, and learn how false your fears are. False fears is an example of alliteration which highlights her concern about the losing her innocence. The writer closes with, “Just so much honor, when you yield’st to me. Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.” When she surrenders to him, she will lose no more integrity than when she killed the flea. Yield’st is a small pun. The writer wants the woman to yield to his twisted rationality of his argument. He also wants her to yield to him sexually. He also uses a simile which associates the conservation of her own life when the flea dies to the conservation of her honor after she gives him what he wants. .
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