Sunday, November 7, 2010

THE FLEA by John Donne

The flea has been the subject of love-poetry. The argument used by the poet is that the flea has a free access to the body of the beloved which is denied to the lover. Donne, however, makes a plea for physical union, which is necessary for spiritual love. Donne’s originality and intensity makes it a powerful lyric. Grierson observes: “It is a strange choice to our mind, but apparently the poem was greatly admired as a masterpiece.” Coleridge paid a tribute in a poem:

Thrice-honoured fleas; great you all as Donne
In Phoebus archives registered are ye,
And this your patent of nobility.
The flea is a symbol of the poet’s passionate plea for physical and sensuous love. The lover speaks to his beloved as he points to the flea which has sucked her blood. The flea has also sucked his blood and therefore the bloods of the lover and the beloved have mixed in its body. It has brought about a union of two bloods. The flea has enjoyed union with the beloved without any courtship or marriage. This is not considered as a matter of sin or shame or loss of virginity. The flea is superior to the lover because it can enjoy physical union without the formality of marriage.
Triple murder
Donne goes a step further. He compares the flea to a temple and to a marriage bed. Just as the two lovers are united in the temple in a bond of marriage, so the two bloods have been united in the body of the flea. Its body is a sacred temple where their marriage has taken place. Similarly, their blood has mingled in the body of the flea and so its (flea’s) body is like their marriage bed. The two have mixed up in the body of the flea in spite of her objections and those of her parents. Her killing the flea would be an act of triple murder—murder of the flea, murder of the lover and her own murder. This is a sin and so she must spare the flea.
No loss of honour
The beloved kills the flea and the poet feels unhappy. He chides her for her cruelty. What, after all, was the crime of the flea? She sucked the blood of both. Sucking a drop of her blood has not made her weak; she has also not lost her honour or chastity. Just as she has felt no weaker and lost no honour by the sucking of the blood by the flea, in the same way, her physical union with the lover will not affect either her health or her honour. She should, therefore, willingly surrender herself to her lover. The poet has rejected the notions of honour or chastity which are generally held out as arguments against sexual indulgence. Even spiritual love has its prelude in physical love. Why should his beloved object to his overtures?
Donne uses new images and conceits to advantage through the flea-bite. First, the mingling of the bloods of the lover and the beloved in the body of the flea is no matter of sin or shame. The flea has brought about the mingling of the blood of the two and therefore there should be no objection to their sex-relationship. The conceit of the flea as a temple and as a marriage-bed is original, so also the sin of triple-murder by the proposed crushing of the flea by the beloved. When the beloved has killed the flea with her nails, the poet regards it as shedding blood of innocence. Her victory over the flea is imaginary rather than real. She will lose as much honour by sexual relationship with the poet as the honour lost by the flea-bite.
Donne believes in physical relationship between the lovers. Sex is above fear or shame. The world of the lovers is different from the ordinary world. However, critics differ about the justification of sex-relationship. James Keeve calls the poem “cynical and unpleasant”, while A.J. Smith regards it anti-courtly and anti-Petrarchan. There is no doubt that the poet’s plea for physical union is both personal and original. The poem is remarkable for its emotional intensity and vigour. 

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!