The unique position of John Donne's metaphysical love poetry in Renaissance poetry

A close reading of 'The Flea'

Term Paper, 2014

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Metaphysical Poetry: A definition

3. 'The Flea' as a representative example of Donne's metaphysical love poetry

4. Features of Donne's love poetry as found in 'The Flea' in contrast to popular Elizabethan poetry

4. Conclusion

5. References

The unique position of John Donne's metaphysical love poetry in Renaissance literature: Close reading of 'The Flea' as a representative example

1. Introduction

John Donne (1572 - 1631) is widely considered to be the great master of 17th century British poetry (Grierson 1921). Some even argue that he is one of the greatest poets in the English language (cf. Greene et al. 2012: 418). Nevertheless, metaphysical poets have been among the more neglected authors in studies of the history of British literature until the revival in the 1930's mainly put forward by J.C. Grierson and T.S. Eliot (cf. Drabble 2000: 665). But still there has been relatively less research about Donne's great and timeless work.

Donne's work emerges of late Elizabethan England (cf. Elliot 1921). However, his poetry but his metaphysical love poetry in particular is not what one generally expects from Elizabethan poetry. Although Donne has also written several sonnets most of his love poetry is not of the Petrarchan fashion. Most of Donne's love poetry is entirely inventive and unconventional in form, content and style. In many of his poems Donne uses far-fetched images. The language he uses is highly imaginative, very passionate, full of wit and some of his love poems like 'The Flea' contain highly erotic allusions. Another common element in Donne's love poetry is that the majority of his poems - e.g. the erotic lyric 'The Flea', the mutual love poem “The Canonization” or the sonnet “Battered by my Heart” - present an argumentative structure and a speaker that uses elaborate strategies of persuasion trying to make a point addressing a beloved persona. The speakers are typically not just lovers who lament about rejected love and paint a picture of his platonised love for an idealised but unreachable woman, but instead Donne's speakers appear as rather confident lovers demonstrating an original way of wooing as well as a wide variety of moods that can emerge from the feelings of love.

As the title of this paper suggests this paper claims that Donne's metaphysical love poetry takes a unique position in Renaissance literature. Hence this paper aims at revealing and highlighting main themes and characteristics of Donne's love poetry. However, the focus will be on Donne's metaphysical love poetry. That is why the paper will start with defining what metaphysical poetry is and what its key features are. These preliminaries will be followed by the main analysis. In order to prove the main thesis of the unique position of Donne's love poetry the erotic and highly metaphysical poem 'The

Flea' is chosen to be examined as a representative example. But at first I will have a closer look at the poem in terms of content, language and style. Afterwards the paper will close with a concluding comparison of the characteristics of Donne's metaphysical love poetry (found in 'The Flea') to popular Elizabethan poetry.

2. Metaphysical Poetry: A defintion

As this paper focuses on Donne's metaphysical love poetry trying to answer the question in what way this poetry takes a unique position in Renaissance literature, it is first of all essential to know about what metaphysical poetry is.

Metaphysical poetry is a term that groups certain British 17th century poets among which John Donne is the most influential. Because it is difficult to define metaphysical poetry it is a rather loose group of poets (cf. Elliot 1921), but Donne is regarded as the founder and the chief of this type of poetry. Thus most definitions of metaphysical poetry mainly refer to the characteristics of Donne's poetry. The term should not only be interpreted as a philosophy that literally tries to look beyond the physical, but it rather refers to a type of poetry that can be characterised by “metaphysical ingenuity, argumentative intellectuality, and stylistic obscurity” (Greene 2000: 870). It is furthermore constituted by “the elaboration […] of a figure of speech to the furthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it” (Elliot 1921). Thus the three features are particularly realised by the use of elaborate, complex, highly inventive and unusual or far-fetched comparisons and images that are applied by wit “comparing two apparently dissimilar objects or emotions, often with an effect of shock or surprise” (Drebble 2000: 227) because the most heterogeneous ideas are put together violently but in a clever way at the same time (cf. Johnson 1781).

This “fusion of two quite separate semantic fields into one complex image” (Nowak 2010: 87) is called a metaphysical conceit.1 It is also typically characterised by “the use of some simple or mundane object or act to make a point at some higher level of meaning” (Cohen 2002: 70). This metaphysical conceit is one main defining element of metaphysical poetry (cf. Elliot 1921). It can extend over several lines, but also over a full poem (cf. Black et al. 2011: 508). So finally according to the Encyclopædia Britan-nica a metaphysical poet's work is a “blend of emotion and intellectual ingenuity, cha-racterized by conceit or “wit” - that is, by the sometimes violent yoking together of apparently unconnected ideas and things so that the reader is startled out of his com-placency and forced to think through the argument of the poem”. It is that union of fee-lings and intellect in verse that metaphysical poets are praised for by T.S. Elliot (1921).

3.'The Flea' as a representative example of Donne's metaphysical love poetry

'The Flea' is one of Donne's best known piece of metaphysical love poetry. It was pro- bably first published two years after his death in 1633. The exact date of its composition is unknown, though scholars assume that Donne composed it in his early years of wri- ting. Thus this poem can either be considered to be late Elizabethan or early 17th century literature.

It is a highly erotic poem containing lots of direct and explicit sexual allusions. It consists all the main elements that constitute Donne's metaphysical love poetry and that distinguish it from popular Elizabethan poetry of the Petrarchan fashion (Nowak 2010: 94ff). An elaborate and witty conceit is employed throughout the poem. The beloved lady is addressed and wooed in a unique way with the help of the conceit and a creative strategy of persuasion. The theme of love and the role of the lady in that love relation-ship is portrayed in a completely original way.

The poem deals with a male persona trying to satisfy his sexual desire by seducing the addressed beloved lady to have sexual intercourse with him. As means of seduction the speaker constructs a conceit of the flea to describe the union of him and her beloved lady that he wants to create by the consumption of love. Using the flea as the conceit throughout the poem the male persona of this poem, who appears as a speaker from the first-person point of view, develops an elaborate scheme to persuade the lady to yield in to him and his lustful sexual desire.

The poem comprises of three stanzas with nine lines each. Iambic tetrameter and pentameter take turns which emphasises the urgent and energetic passion and desire the speaker feels. The lines follow a regular and consistent structure of pair rhymes, which might support the train of thought by revealing connected entities of meaning. It starts abruptly in medias res by directly addressing the beloved lady.

1 Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

2 How little that which thou deny’st me is;

3 It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,

4 And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;

5 Thou know’st that this cannot be said

6 A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

7 Yet this enjoyes before it woo,

8 And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,

9 And this, alas, is more than we would do.

As a reader, reading this first stanza, one pictures a conversation between two lovers, the speaker explaining the issue he wants to clarify. In doing so the tone is rather that of a teacher teaching a student a lesson. Beneath that serious overtone the speaker seems to be trying to hide a playful undertone. The male persona of this poem notices a flea and draws his lovers attention to it saying that the favour he is asking for is as small and base as a flea (l.1,2). The speaker has obviously asked the lady to satisfy his sexual de-sire by consuming their love. The lady, however, refuses to give in to this request. The conceit of the flea is constructed from the very beginning. The flea is established as the symbol for the lady's denial to fulfil the speaker's wish for physical love. As the male persona realises that the flea has sucked blood from him as well as from her, he pictures the idea that their blood is mixed together inside the body of the flea (l.3,4). The speaker clearly considers this mixing of their bloods as an act of union. This act of union performed through the flea is set to be the starting point of the main line of argument by the speaker in order to seduce the woman. He tries to assure her that this act of union is not yet a sin, the lady has not lost her virginity (l.5,6). Doing this the speaker presents the act of union as something insignificant and something natural, that should not be feared of performing. That the flea already “enjoys before it woo” (l.7) can be interpreted as an attempt of making the lady feel regret for having denied the man. However, the speaker also states that in fact through the mixing of their bloods in the flea they metaphorically already performed physical love, though in reality the lady did not dare to do what the flea did (“And this, alas, is more than we would do”; l.9). From the male's point of view the lady behaves overly careful. Hence this last statement presents a playful accusation which is meant to tease the lady and make her feel naïve and foolish and by that demonstrating her that he disapproves of her denial. In sum the speaker explicitly advances the lady in a very playful and humorous way. The overall message that the speaker tries to convey is that satisfying his desires would be an insignificant and sinless act without any consequences to be afraid of because their union has in fact already been set by the action of the flea.

This first stanza is full of sexual references, which is very untypical of poetry at that time. There is “extensive play on the mingling of bloods, the exchange of body fluids, as well as the speaker's hint that his aroused state must be obvious to the lady” (Hadfield 2006: 51). Line 8 (“And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two”) “clearly does not simply refer to the flea after its meal” but it is also a phallic allusion (ibid.). Furthermore one could argue that Donne plays “on the confusion of the letters 'f ' and 's' in early modern texts in line 3, relating the natural action of the flea” to the physical love the male persona desperately wants to perform with the lady (ibid.). This ambiguity in meaning does not seem to be a coincidence. It rather seems to be an inuendo intentionally set by Donne as an implicit emphasis of the male's lustful desires. Picturing the conversation between two lovers this first stanza represents an explicit request for satisfying lustful sexual desires. The speaker's words convey a very urgent tone using highly erotic language. He desperately strives for union with his beloved lady. The conceit of the flea thus serves as an instrument to persuade her of his stance and consequently yield in to his desires. However, at first it surprises that a flea is one main protagonist in an erotic love poem. Contrary to the common fashion of metaphors in contemporary love poetry (e.g. in Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnets) Donne does not make use of any metaphor related to beautiful things like nature, spring season, flowers, the moon etc.. Instead Donne uses a base parasite to describe the sexual union or the love of two lovers. It is very unusual imagery because a flea is commonly rather related to negative thoughts like infections and adjectives like 'base', 'small', 'insignificant', 'unwelcome'. It would also normally cause a feeling of disgust (cf. Cohen 2002: 70). Consequently the far-fetched and very uncommon connection between a flea and a sexual relationship of two people is a prototypical example of a metaphysical conceit.

In the second stanza a change in mood can be found. The speaker seems very emotional showing an alleged or actual feeling of fear and despair. In response to the lady's reaction he develops a more and more intelligent and persuasive argument speaking in an increasing rhetoric tone.

10 Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,

11 Where we almost, yea more than maryed are.

12 This flea is you and I, and this

13 Our mariage bed, and mariage temple is

14 Though parents grudge, and you, we are met,

15 And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.

16 Though use make you apt to kill me,

17 Let not to that, selfe murder added be,

18 And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

In this second stanza the lady recognises the flea as what it is: A parasite. She reacts naturally and attempts to kill the flea also in order to stop the speaker's argument which from the lady's point of view presumably sounds too far-fetched and maybe even ridiculous. Yet the male persona tries to prevent the lady from doing that, pleading her not to kill the flea (l.10). He argues that killing the flea would not only kill the flea but “three lives” (l.11). On the one hand these three lives could be the lives of the flea, the male persona and the lady since the flea carries their blood. On the other hand “three lives” could also refer to the male persona, his beloved lady and a child that has been conceived by consuming marriage. Another hint to that interpretation can be found in line 8 (“one blood made of two”). Nonetheless one gets the idea of three separate things becoming one. This further reminds of the Christian concept of trinity. This religious allusion does not appear as a coincidence. Since Donne was a Catholic and is also the author of several religious poems this religious allusion mirrors one important aspect in Donne's life (Nowak 2010: 85ff). Moreover it establishes the conceit of the flea as a metaphor for physical love as well as spiritual love. Surprisingly the latter builds a union with the former rather than a counterpart. Bodily love and spiritual love are merged together without much effort of the poet which is just another evidence for Donne's intellect and rhetorical ability.

The speaker, however, further continues his strategy of persuasion by the hyperbolic statement that they are already “more than married” through the action of the flea (l.11). On the hand hand the speaker compares the union of blood to holy marriage saying that the former even exceeds the latter. On the other hand this comparison is a clear sexual inuendo that implies that they already consumed marriage and thus they became one through the help of the flea. Hence from the speaker's point of view it is (socially) legitimate to engage in physical love fulfilling the male's desires. The conceit of the flea is further constructed as a metaphor for their physical as well as their spiritual union which becomes clear by the images “This flea is you and I, and this; Our marriage bed and marriage temple is” (ll.12, 13). Here the speaker creates a highly creative but seductive image by combining bodily love with spirituality intending to legitimise their union not only in a social or cultural sense but also in the sense of religion by institutionalising the physical bonding through Church or even god. Once more Donne proves his ability to stretch a conceit to its limits of recognition.

Still the speaker seems to be disappointed because he knows about and regrets the social inhibition. Nevertheless he makes clear that they are joined albeit not only the lady has reservations but also her parents disapprove their union (l.14).


1 The idea of the fusion of two seperate things, i.e. the sense of union realised in the tendency to unify things is also mirrored in the content of metaphysical poetry as a recurring theme.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The unique position of John Donne's metaphysical love poetry in Renaissance poetry
A close reading of 'The Flea'
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Department of Anglophone Studies)
A Survey of British Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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Donne, John Donne, metaphysical love poetry, love poetry, Elizabethan poetry, Petrarchan Sonnet, Renaissance Poetry, British Literature, anglophone studies, The Flea, Flea, inventive, unconventional, Liebesgedicht, englische Literatur, imaginative, passion, erotic allusions, lyric, persuasion, beloved persona, lament, platonised love
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Saleem Arif (Author), 2014, The unique position of John Donne's metaphysical love poetry in Renaissance poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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