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John Donne’s Erotica | The New Yorker
The speaker of "The Flea" tries to talk his crush into bed by using such arousing images as the sucking of blood, the squashing of insects, and suicide. What on earth made him think this would be an effective pickup strategy? Did they not have roses and teddy bears in the seventeenth century?
Actually, when you talk about you're talking about one of the master pickup artists of all time. Along with some of his British contemporaries – the so-called "Metaphysical Poets" – Donne wrote heaps of clever and erotically charged love poems. You get the sense that when he wrote this poem he was thinking along the same lines as the rapper Kanye West when he started to sport those sunglasses that actually your vision: "Can I really get away with this?"
Donne does indeed get away with trying to seduce a woman by talking about a bug. But let's not overstate the accomplishment. "The Flea" was written in an age when people were not such squeamish germ-o-phobes as they are now. Fleas were a not-infrequent subject of seventeenth-century European painting. Then again, we are germ-o-phobic for a reason: the flea is now known to have contributed to the Black Plague that swept through Europe before Donne was even born. The point, though, is that the image of a flea sucking blood would not have automatically led a Renaissance audience to recoil in horror.
Donne is famous for writing in at least two genres of poetry: erotic love poetry, like "To His Mistress Going to Bed" and "The Flea," and devotional (religious) poetry, like the famous "Holy Sonnets." There is not always a strict line between religion and eroticism in Donne's poetry, and in the seventeenth century you could be a preacher and still take a passionate interest in sex. Donne, we should add, was a well-known preacher who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism.
Donne's poetry was not collected and published as a whole until after his death. It has been speculated that "The Flea" may have been written around 1610 and first published in 1633.
If you have trouble getting into this brainy poem, just imagine as a teenage boy at summer camp who has found himself a lady friend at the girl's camp across the lake. OK, we're ripping off at least twelve coming-of-age films right now, but putting that aside...Donne, summer camp, yes.
There he is sitting on the dock, wearing his frilly lace tights, or whatever they wore during the English Renaissance. He has the boldness and self-centeredness of a teenager who thinks that the world is his oyster. Let's put aside the whole sex bit and say that he's just trying to get the girl next to him to give him a kiss. In his British accent, he's all, "Give us a kiss, love!" And she's like, "No way! Everyone will think I'm easy!"
All of a sudden, he sees a mosquito land on her arm. (Fleas are not such a huge issue at summer camp, right?) First he gets all jealous that the mosquito gets to go to first base while he, the nerdy poet, hasn't even kissed a girl yet. Later he argues that they are pretty much already kissing inside the mosquito, and nobody would call her easy because of that, so why don't they just get it over with and kiss for real already!
Seriously, folks, that's the poem. It's a slightly skeezy but charming boy trying to convince a girl to hook up with him despite her fears about developing a "reputation." The speaker of this poem has a very adolescent mentality in the sense that he doesn't even notice that his choice of images is...well...kind of gross. It's a sticky-sweet coming-of-age poem, perfect for anyone who's ever been to summer camp...even if your camp didn't have poets from the seventeenth century running around in it. (Which is a good thing, because the rest of us would have had a hard time scoring that first kiss if Donne had been stealing all the hearts!)
John Donne: Poems Summary and Analysis of "The Flea"
The speaker notices a flea and points it out to the woman he loves. The flea has bitten them both, and now their blood is mixed inside the flea. He says that no one would consider it a sin or shameful for their bodily fluids to mix inside a bug, so why don't they just swap fluids in bed?
Um, something to think about, we guess.
Now she (quite rationally) tries to kill the flea, but the speaker stops her. He says the flea represents the joining of their blood, as in marriage. If she squashes the flea, she will be killing herself, the speaker, and, oh-by-the-way, committing sacrilege against the institution of marriage.
Let's not get carried away here, Donne.
. She kills the poor, innocent flea. She thinks this disproves the earlier claim that killing the flea would kill them both. But Donne, as always, has a comeback ready: the fact that she hasn't suffered from the death of the flea in which their bloods were mixed means that "swapping fluids" isn't so dangerous to her honor as she thinks. In straightforward terms, his point is: "You have nothing to fear from having sex with me."
What a charmer.
Donne’s career as a ladies’ man ended after he met Anne More. She was a teen-ager at the time, fresh from the countryside, and he was a secretary to her uncle Sir Thomas Egerton, who was a close adviser to the Queen and lived in a grand house in Whitehall. Donne and More fell in love, prompting much yearning and, it is thought, one of Donne’s best-known conceits. From “The Flea”:
John Donne: Poems “For whom the bell tolls” | …
Musée Historique, Nancy
by John Donne
M 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 !
In both poems, Donne explores the two opposing themes of physical and sacred love; in his love poem "The Flea," he depicts the speaker as an immoral human being who is solely concerned with pleasing himself, where as in his sacred poem "Holy Sonnet 14" Donne portrays the speaker as a noble human being because he is anxious to please God....
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The Love Poetry of John Donne - Literature-Study-Online
To understand John Donne’s poems better, studying his poetic skills such as symbolism, wit, metaphor, and exaggeration are crucial, but the most important subject, death, in his poems cannot be overlooked....
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