The Flea (poem)

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"The Flea" is an erotic metaphysical poem (first published posthumously in 1633) by John Donne (1572–1631). The exact date of its composition is unknown, but it is probable that Donne wrote this poem in the 1590s when he was a young law student at Lincoln’s Inn, before he became a respected religious figure as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral.[1] The poem uses the conceit of a flea, which has sucked blood from the male speaker and his female lover, to serve as an extended metaphor for the relationship between them. The speaker tries to convince a lady to sleep with him, arguing that if their blood mingling in the flea is innocent, then sexual mingling would also be innocent. His argument hinges on the belief that bodily fluids mix during sexual intercourse.[2]

According to Laurence Perrine, this poem, along with many other of Donne's poems, solidifies his place in the literary movement, creating what is now known as Metaphysical poetry. Although the term was not found until after his death, it is still widely used and will continue to be traced back to work such as "The Flea".[3]


The poem evokes the aphorism carpe diem, which is Latin for "seize the day". Donne encourages the lady to focus on the present day and time versus saving herself for the afterlife. Donne is able to hint at the erotic without explicitly referring to sex, using images such as the flea that "pamper'd swells" with the blood of the lady (line 8). This evokes the idea of an erection. The speaker complains that "This is more than we would do!" (line 9) The speaker says it would be "sacrilege" to kill the flea. He holds the flea up in the second stanza as "our marriage bed" and "our marriage temple", begging for the lady to spare its innocent life (line 13). He argues that by killing the flea, she would be killing herself, himself, and the flea itself, "Three crimes in killing three" (line 18). The lady, in the third stanza, kills the flea, presumably rejecting the speaker's advances. He then says she will lose no more honor when she decides to sleep with him than she did when she killed the flea.[4][5]


Scholars have stated that Donne's work was not taboo during the 16th century due to other metaphorical references to the flea. Anthony Low wrote that Donne invented a new kind of private love that people can learn to appreciate.[6] Achsah Guibbory challenged Low, saying "The Flea" focuses on Donne's capacity for arrogance and misogyny, making his poetry crude in today society.[7]

Guibbory further argued that the detailed descriptions of women's bodies in a sexual way give a negative reaction for today's women readers,[7] while Low stated there is an initial shock for readers, but instead attempted to look at the poem as a tool to create a new space for mutual love in lyric poetry.[6]


Illiana Luciano has written that tone in a poem determines a readers mood and how they feel about the text and that "The Flea" is effective in the way it conveys the idea of a women giving her silent consent.[8] Donne use of lines such as "In this flea our two bloods mingled be [9]", give an impression of the speaker’s sexual desires through the image of the flea onto a virgin women. Instead of bringing to light the women's voice, the flea is the first thing that is mentioned.

Word choice has an impact into the tone of a poem;

"How little that which thou deniest me is,

It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee

And in this blood our two bloods mingled be"[9]

"Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail , in blood of innocence?"

Laurence Perrine proposed that, most critics of the poem infer that the speaker of the poem is successful in his attempt to woo the virgin woman. Perrine argues that there is evidence the speaker is unsuccessful in his attempt to persuade the virgin women to lay with him.[3]

The use of harsh wording in these lines, “Cruel and Sudden”, agree with Perrines statement[according to whom?], since the women crushed the flea it is a possibility she is rejecting his proposal. While the speaker makes her feel guilty for it. This poem is beyond the declaration of devotion that is normally in love poems, and is replaced with religious and grotesque imagery to woo the virgin woman.[citation needed]


Typography is defined as the style or appearance of printed matter in order to give a certain effect to best convey a meaning in a poem. During Donne's lifetime, it was standard to use the long s, which appears more like the letter ‘f’. The third line, "Me it suck'd first, and now sucks thee", could allude to exactly what the narrator thought the flea, and he himself wished, to be doing. That a written ’s’ closely resembled the letter ‘f’ when the poem was written possibly renders the line obscene.[citation needed]

Metaphysical Poetry[edit]

Donne (1572 – 1631) was the most influential metaphysical poet.[10] His personal relationship with religion and sexual relations seem to influence the majority of his work. The psychological analysis and sexual realism of his work are key to the development of poetic style. Nayeli Riano [11] believes “The Flea” gives a new outlook to metaphysical poetry combining philosophical and spiritual approach that conveys an obscene word choice.

Metaphysical poetry, the natural that too is unnatural, is seldom direct and easy to decipher; making it intellectually stimulating to read.[12] Donne's themes are explained through unusual metaphors turning the strangest idea into the depiction of the human experience.


  1. ^ Dautch, Aviva (2017-03-30). "A close reading of 'The Flea'". The British Library. Retrieved 2019-09-13.
  2. ^ The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, Volume 2. ISBN 978-1-55111-610-5.
  3. ^ a b Perrine, Laurence (1990). "Explicating Donne: "The Apparition" and "The Flea"". College Literature. 17 (1): 1–20. ISSN 0093-3139.
  4. ^ Abrams, M.H., ed. (1993). The Norton Anthology of English Literature (6th ed.). W.W. Norton. p. 1081.
  5. ^ Hunt, Clay (1954). Donne's Poetry: Essays in Literary Analysis. Yale University Press.
  6. ^ a b Low, Anthony (November 1993). "The Reinvention of Love by Anthony Low". Cambridge Core. Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  7. ^ a b Guibbory, Achsah (2006). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Cambridge University Press.
  8. ^ Luciano, Iliana (September 2012). "BLASÉ SPEAKERS: THE TONES OF SPEAKERS IN CARPE DIEM POETRY": 1–15. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ a b Foundation, Poetry (2019-10-07). "The Flea by John Donne". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  10. ^ Poets, Academy of American. "A Brief Guide to Metaphysical Poets | Academy of American Poets". Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  11. ^ Riano, Nayeli (2019-02-15). "A Foray Into Metaphysical Poetry With John Donne". The Imaginative Conservative. Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  12. ^ Smith, W. Bradford (1934). "What Is Metaphysical Poetry?". The Sewanee Review. 42 (3): 261–272. ISSN 0037-3052.