Poetry for the Layman #2 - 'The Flea'
It's time for the second entry in the 'Poetry for the Layman' series!
I'm going with a poem by John Donne again mainly because I know his works well, but also because I really like them.
So, 'The Flea'.
We don't have an exact date of when this poem was written as it wasn't officially published until after Donne's death. It is a prime example of Donne's use of metaphors and why he is often known as the founder of Metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical poetry of uses something concrete and easily understood to talk about and reference a concept that is abstract in nature. In this case, Donne uses a flea, who has bitten himself and then his lady, to represent their sexual union. This type of metaphor can be found also in his more spiritual poetry that he wrote later in life following the death of his beloved wife.
The Flea - By John Donne
As before, my interpretation will follow each line and can be seen in italics.
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
Take note of this flea, and take note of this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
How little the thing you deny me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee
This flea sucked blood from me, and now it sucks blood from you
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
And in this flea now our two bloods are mingled together; (in the time this poem was written sex was thought to be a blending of bloods)
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
You know these bloods mixing in the flea cannot be called
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
A sin, a shame, or the loss of your virginity,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
Yet this flea doesn’t need to marry you blend our bloods,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And it’s spoiled as it swells with a single blood made from ours mixed together,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
And this togetherness the flea brings about, sadly, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Please spare these three lives that exist within this one flea,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
Where we are almost, no are more than married.
This flea is you and I, and this
This flea represents you and I, and is
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Our marriage bed, and the place where our relationship is sacred;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
Even though we are hated by your parents,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Here inside this flea we are held together.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
While killing this flea will kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
Do not kill the representation of yourself as well,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
And commit the sin of killing three lives, yours, mine, and the flea.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Cruel and suddenly, why have you
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Colored your nail purple with the death of this innocent flea?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
How could this flea have been guilty,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Except in taking the drop of blood from you?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou
And yet you rejoice and say that you
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
Find that you and I are not worse off now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
It’s true, then learn how untrue fears are:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Just as much of your honor, when you sleep with me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
Will be wasted, as we were made worse off for the death of the flea.