Posted: September 4th, 2013
Sex and Seduction in John Donne’s The Flea
Artists and authors have often looked for different ways to represent topics in their work. This includes the use of symbolism and metaphorical language especially when they are discussing taboo topics, or topics that are controversial in their society. John Donne is one such artist, who spoke of sex and sexual matters in his poem, “The Flea.” The poem was one of the most provocative in its time. The poem has three stanzas, and in each of the stanzas, the author presents a different argument and line of thought. Donne wrote the poem in the seventeenth century, and matters of seduction and sexuality did not make for everyday conversation. John Donne’s poem is a seduction poem where the author uses persuasion, although not in the normal sense, to convince the woman to lose her virginity to her.
In this poem, Donne uses the image of the flea to illustrate sex. The flea is symbolic, and Donne uses an animal that is able to explore his lover’s body, yet he is denied that access (Guibbory 58). The speaker expresses his desire for the woman, and he expresses how this desire has affected him. In the first stanza, the speaker says, “Yet this enjoys before it woo, and pampered, swells with one blood made of two.” This line expresses the speaker’s state of arousal for the woman (Guibbory 51). The speaker wants the woman to yield herself to him by engaging in premarital sex. Like in most cases, the man is asking for sex, and the woman does not want to do it. This compels the man to use all manner of techniques in order to woo the woman. However, unlike the modern and more conventional ways where a man will use things that appeal to a woman, the speaker chooses to use a flea. This seems insulting to women in general, but it does not dissuade the speaker, who continues to present the flea as innocent in all that is happening. The speaker does not seem to esteem sex or hold virginity highly by using the flea, a parasite. The speaker does not consider what the woman’s virginity means to her. In the second line, he tells her, “How little that which thou denies me.” He does not also believe that the woman’s excuse of honor is credible and believes that it is mere talk (Wiggins 140).
The speaker appeals to the woman’s sense of reason by urging her not to consider societal opinion, but to give in to him. He does not consider any kind of relationship that he has with the woman. From the poem, it is clear that the society does not approve of premarital sex. This is seen in the second stanza, where the speaker says, “Though parents grudge, and you, we are met”, where the parents represent the society. During Donne’s time, sex before marriage was not condoned, and it was regarded as a sin. The speaker knows this well, and he tries to convince the woman that the flea represents their marriage bed. He knows that the woman places marriage highly, and he includes the idea of a marriage bed and a marriage temple when he is trying to woo her. He does not seem to believe that the woman believes in this tradition either, and this is seen where he adds, “and you” just after he speaks of their parents grudges. He only adds it as an afterthought.
The speaker seems desperate in his attempt to convince the woman to engage in sex, that he even seems to lose his sense of reasoning. He tells the woman that no one would consider the blood mingling in the flea’s body sinful or shameful, nor would it be considered as loss of virginity. In the first stanza, he says, “Thou knowest that this cannot be said, a sin nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.” This is indeed ironical considering that what the speaker means by blood mingling is the exchange of bodily fluids that will occur between them when they have sex. As usually happens sometimes, the woman does not give in to a man easily just because he is trying to seduce her. The woman in the poem ends up killing the flea, meaning that she does not see things the same way the speaker does. This alarms the speaker, who says that is a cruel act on her part. By doing this, the woman proves to the man that all his previous claims were wrong. The speaker had earlier claimed that killing the flea would result to the death of all of them. The woman proves that this is not the case when she kills the flea (Grimes).
Grimes, S. Linda. John Donne’s The Flea. Oct 13 2008. Web. 3 May 2012.
Guibbory, Achsah. The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print
Schulze, Daniela. John Donne – “The Flea” and Andrew Marvell – “To His Coy Mistress”: Metaphysical Poetry: Virginity, Sexuality and Seduction in Conceits. Germany: GRIN Verlag, Apr 12, 2008
Wiggins, D. Peter. Donne, Castiglione, and the Poetry of Courtliness. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000. Print
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