The Flea

By: John Donne
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
 With a wave of his imaginary hand, the speaker gestures to a small flea that
is sucking on the tender flesh of the woman he desires.

We don't know if he loves her or not just yet, and we may not find out. But
she has denied him something. We're guessing this something is either
physical, emotional, or both.

"Mark" in this context means, "Look at" or "note." He says, "Mark but," as if
the thing he wants her to look at is not very significant. The "but" here means
something like "only" here.

Indeed, in the second line, he explains that the smallness of the flea relates
to the insignificance or triviality of the thing she has denied him.

Obviously she doesn't think the thing she has denied him is so trivial. The
speaker's task in the poem, then, is clear: to prove that she's making a
mountain out of a molehill by denying him what he wants.

Lines 3-4
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

The speaker gets excited, and possibly aroused, by the thought that the flea
that just bit him is now sucking her blood, mixing the two together.

We're sure there must be a name for a bug-bite fetish, but we don't know it.
We hope that makes you think better of us.

Their blood is "mingling" like guests at a cocktail party. "Oh, hello, Onegative, I'd like you to meet B-positive."

Lines 5-6
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;

A clearer picture is starting to emerge of what the speaker has been denied.
It's a three-letter word that starts with an "s" and ends with an "x."

He is making a comparison between the mixing of "blood" – or other fluids –
in the sex act with the mingling of the blood inside the flea. Sorry to get all
anatomical here, but it's very much in the spirit of the poem.

Many of Donne's poems take the form of a long, complex argument, and we
can see him starting to weave such an argument here.

He forces his companion to admit that no one would ever describe the mixing
of blood inside an insect as a "sin," as "shameful," or as a "loss of
maidenhead."

Let's start by thinking about things people in seventeenth-century England
woulddefinitely consider sinful and shameful. How about an unmarried
woman sleeping with a dude who has a thing for bugs?

"Maidenhead" refers to virginity or chastity. Even if the woman is not
technically a virgin, being promiscuous with the speaker could lead to a loss
of her reputation as a "proper" maiden. These are no small stakes for the
woman.

His argument, then, is that because the flea's fleshy meal is not shameful,
sex with him must not be shameful either.

Lines 7-9
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas! is more than we would do.

The speaker complains that the bug gets to enjoy her flesh without wooing
her. No fair! The flea ("this") gets to do "more," erotically speaking, than
either the speaker or the woman.

He almost sounds jealous of the flea, as if it were a romantic rival.

His tone is comically whiny, complete with an over-the-top, begging-forattention "alas!"

The flea is "pamper'd" as he enjoys his luxurious feast of red, iron-rich
goodness.

And, of course, Donne doesn't fail to give us the nausea-inducing image of
the flea swelling up with blood as it continues to suck. We imagine the flea
gradually expanding with a glazed look of satisfaction in its eyes.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.

As the woman raises her hand to kill the flea that is still sucking her flesh, the
speaker begs her to hold off. In a desperate effort, he's like, "Wait...you can't
kill the flea because...because...it represents our marriage!"

Whaaaa?

Our guess is that the speaker and the woman are not actually married. After
all, she probably wouldn't be so worried about losing her honor if they were.

The flea, he says, contains three lives: his, hers, and the flea's.

Notice the ridiculously strained language in, "almost, yea, more than." He
leaps from "not quite married" to transcending marriage altogether in the
space of a few words. This is one slippery dude.

He even manages to turn the flea into a religious symbol, akin to the Holy
Trinity, which also contains three spirits: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

"Stay" doesn't mean "remain"; it means "stop" or "hold back." You can almost
see the speaker leaping in front of the flea, bodyguard-style, to save ("spare")
its tiny life.

Lines 12-13
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

The speaker's absurd argument continues on, as if he has dug himself in too
deep of a hole to try climbing out now.

The flea contains the essence of both people, and their blood meets like two
newlyweds in their wedding bed.

The speaker pushes the religious envelope further by describing the flea's
body as a "temple" in which their marriage is consecrated.

Lines 14-15
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.

The order of the words in these lines is confusing, but the meaning is clear
enough.

We get more back-story about their relationship: her parents do not approve
of their union. Or maybe they just don't want this randy guy getting all
friendly with their daughter.

And it's not just the parents who have bad feelings (a "grudge") about the
union. The woman herself ("you") is not thrilled, either.

To which he replies: "Too late! Haha!"

Despite the reservations of everyone, it seems, except the speaker, the
symbolic marriage is already taking place in the flea's jet-black body, which
functions as a church, or "cloister."

Hey, it's still probably a classier venue than Vegas. Zing!

Lines 16-18
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

She really is not too pleased with the speaker. Even he will admit that her
experience and habits ("use") would naturally lead her to want to "kill" him!

But, he says, if she kills the flea she will be committing no fewer than three
separate sins: murder, suicide ("self murder"), and sacrilege (or disrespecting
the faith).

It's murder because his blood is in the flea. It's suicide because hers is, too.
And it's sacrilege because, according to the logic of the speaker, they are
married inside that-there bug.

He's got a steep mountain to climb. Normally in this situation we'd forget
about the romance and settle for her giving up the death wish.

Of course, by "use" or habit, the speaker also simply means that we are
accustomed to killing bugs when they bite us. Normally he'd have no problem
with squashing the flea.

Lines 19-20
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?

Oh no! She killed it! Murderer! Suicide! Blaspheme!

Wait, the sky didn't fall, after all. She killed the bug, but all that happened is
that she stained her fingernail with the "purple" blood.

Nonetheless, the speaker is crestfallen. He calls her action "cruel" and hasty.

She has taken the blood of an innocent, which also has vaguely religious
overtones, alluding perhaps to the death of Jesus Christ.

Still, though he sounds shocked, we know that nothing too terrible has really
happened.

Lines 21-22
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?

He expands on his notion of the flea's innocence. It must be because he's so
sympathetic to insects...right.

He asks how the flea could have been guilty of anything except taking one
small, teensy drop of her blood.

We can imagine her response: "Yeah, well, I'm going to be scratching that bite
for days!" We don't blame you, lady.

Lines 23-24
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.

The woman has "triumphed" over the flea, and she believes she has also
triumphed over the speaker's argument.

Let's recap that argument, shall we? The speaker had said that because the
flea contained both his and her blood, killing it would be like killing both of
them.

But now that she has actually gone through with the violent deed, she finds
that she hasn't lost any of her strength. She feels exactly the same. No
calamity has befallen them.

Doesn't this prove that his argument was just a load of hogwash?

Lines 25-27
'Tis true; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

Ah, but never underestimate the tenaciousness of the speaker in a Donne
poem. He's always two steps ahead of you.

In this case, he readily admits that his earlier argument has fallen apart. He
brushes aside her objection by simply conceding, "'Tis true."

Then he brings out his ace card. The whole argument has been a way to
prove that having sex with him wouldn't be such a disastrous, sinful,

shameful thing. He will now prove that her earlier "fears" have been
unfounded.

When she "yields" to his seduction, she'll discover that the amount of honor
she loses will be equal to the amount of life she lost when she killed the flea.

Which is to say: Nada. Zippo. Zilch. None.

Just as she felt no less powerful after killing the flea, she will be no less of a
maiden after she has slept with the speaker.

And, not surprisingly, the poem ends before she can even respond.

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