The Flea: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 The Flea by John Donne
  • 0:41 Poem Overview
  • 2:18 Analysis & Symbolism
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

What do insects and erotic poetry have in common? Find out in this lesson on John Donne's 17th-century poem 'The Flea,' an erotic poem where a flea biting a pair of lovers works as an extended metaphor for physical intimacy that has become a popular reference point in literature throughout the centuries.

'The Flea' by John Donne

When we think about romance and intimacy in literature, we probably don't immediately think of insects, with the possible exception of love bugs. You might be surprised, then, to learn that one of the oldest poems dealing with seduction and flirtation uses a bug - specifically a flea - to explore this popular literary theme.

English writer John Donne's 17th-century poem 'The Flea' cleverly uses this insect as a metaphor for a sexual relationship between a man and a woman. While it's unclear when Donne originally composed 'The Flea,' it was first published in 1633, two years after his death.

Poem Overview

The poem is divided into three stanzas of nine lines each. In stanza one, the speaker shows a flea to a young woman he is trying to coax to sleep with him and argues that because it bit him and then her, their blood is joined in the flea's body, which is almost like being joined sexually. He points out that the flea isn't a monogamous creature; it just moves from host to host, sucking blood, and nobody calls it wrong or sinful. It is just doing what's in its nature. Therefore, if the flea's action is innocent, then there is nothing wrong with them having a sexual relationship.

In stanza two, the speaker furthers his argument, trying to convince the woman that the flea is like a marriage bed where they've joined as one. The woman never speaks in the poem, but there's a suggestion that she wants to squash the flea, because the speaker begs her to 'spare' it and compares killing the flea to killing him and herself as well, because their lives are joined in the flea.

In stanza three, the speaker pleads with the woman, arguing that the flea hasn't done anything wrong, and that in fact their relationship is even less sinful because they would be only committing to each other, while the flea never remains with one host/partner. His words indicate that she's told him that killing the flea has harmed neither of them, and that he'll soon get over her: 'Yet thou triumphs, and say'st that thou find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.' He concludes that she has sacrificed her 'honor,' or her virginity, not by giving herself to him, but by killing the innocent flea that holds both of their lives. This language possibly symbolizes pregnancy, which we'll examine in more detail.

Analysis and Symbolism

Donne's poem has been often referenced in literature as a metaphor for sex; in fact, the flea bite has been compared to the vampire bite and has served as a reference point for the reading of vampirism as symbolic of sexual intercourse in vampire literature and pop culture, ranging from classic tales like Dracula to True Blood and Twilight.

The speaker uses the bite that he and the woman have received to justify their being joined together: 'It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, and in this flea our two bloods mingled be.' Insects are often carriers of disease, and in literature, sexual promiscuity is sometimes referred to as a disease, not just of the body, but of the spirit. However, in the poem's opening lines, the speaker tries to make a case against this argument: 'Mark but this flea, and mark in this how little that which thou deniest me is.' In the grand scheme of things, asking her for one night with him is a trivial thing.

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