Thursday, August 13, 2009

Poem of the Week 7/1/2009: The Flea

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
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.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'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.

John Donne 1633

How ought we follow the argument of this poem? John Donne (or the persona of John Donne my professor called "Jack Donne," the lover and lusty scoundrel) writes of a flea who has bitten both himself and his beloved. Such a paltry thing, to be bitten by a flea, and yet in that flea bite the same thing happens as Renaissance folk believed would happen during sex, the mingling of blood. And so, the argument goes, the beloved ought not fear coupling with Mr. Donne.

The narration turns in the second stanza--it looks as if the beloved will smash the flea! The comedy shifts with the action, for suddenly this insignificant little flea is something sacred, "a marriage temple" holding not only its own life, but the combined life of the speaker and his lady. This, of course, is an attempt at seduction as well, evidenced in the beauty and erotic pull of the line, "clostr'd in these living walls of jet." Donne's comedy is born from finely juxtaposing actual desire with the guts of a flea.

In the final stanza, Donne continues to frame the poem as a narrative, recounting the final step in the threesome -- somewhat flirtatiously, the mistress has killed the flea, has "purlp'd [her] nail in blood of innocence." It is seemingly the final word in the argument, the triumph of virginity and thwarted desire. Even Donne seems to admit it; why, he laments, would she have done such a thing, saying that she feels none the worse after all of the poem's pretty talk? And yet as he appears to die, he wins with the argument, "if it was so little, if it affected you so little, so exactly as much honor will you lose in making love with me." Triumph.

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