John Donne – “The Flea” and Andrew Marvell – “To His Coy Mistress”

Metaphysical poetry: Virginity, sexuality and seduction in conceits

Term Paper, 2007

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Metaphysical Poetry and Conceits

3. Virginity, Sexuality and Seduction in Conceits
3.1 The Wit of Conceit in „The Flea”
3.2 The Wit of Conceit in “To His Coy Mistress”
3.3 Similarities and Differences of Donne’s and Marvell’s Poetry

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Works Cited
5.2 Appendix

1. Introduction

How are poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell able to write about an apparent theme that offers a completely different profound meaning if the reader scrutinizes the poem? What does the metaphysical author really intent to say with his poem? In this term paper I try to answer these questions and a lot more.

First I have to clarify what metaphysical poetry and conceits are. For that reason I want to give a short overview of the 17th century, the main issues of that time and who were leading poets. Moreover, I will point out the characteristics of conceits, which are explained in more detail in the course of this paper, using the example of two poems. Then I will give a short analysis of these poems called “The Flea” by John Donne and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. This analysis will be extended to an in-depth analysis of the conceits (type, style of writing, theme, etc.), but I will merely concentrate on the most salient aspects, which are connected to virginity, sexuality or seduction, because a whole analysis would break the mould. In a next step I will introduce an analysis of similarities and differences of Donne’s and Marvell’s literature, having a look at the poets’ background, because I expect some astounding coherences with the theme of the poems. At last, I will summarise all my results in a conclusion. For all my suppositions I will consult a lot of secondary literature to prove my ideas and results.

2. Metaphysical Poetry and Conceits

Metaphysical poetry denominates a literary movement in the 17th century and is part of the period of Baroque, represented by Donne, Marvell and other famous poets. Johnson “remarks of them that 'the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together'.” (Eliot 43). The book Englische Literaturgeschichte helps to define metaphysical poetry more precisely: A major topic is religion, even more frequently there is only love poetry, which is commonly very sensuous and drastic in marked contrast to metaphysics but yet is a central theme for the poets of that time. The arguments in the poems are usually selected for a matter of changeover or cajolery procedure. Marvell and Donne compress erotic ideas in conceits, what means that elements of two widely separated fields of reality are trenchantly copped. The conceits are often actually seeking for darkness and mystery. This technique is also called “strong lined” (Seeber 109). But even in the century of Donne and Marvell the pictorial language was treated depreciatory. The poets seem affected and as if their uppermost aim is to impress the people by presenting their wit. Metaphysical poetry can be seen as a break with the conventionalised Elizabethan poetry. The School of Donne, who was denominated the father of metaphysical poetry, is featured by an emphatic, impetuous way of speech, often colloquial and of an appellative nature. It is essential for the poets to avoid a sophisticated choice of language as effectively as possible. The issues are provocative; most poems deal not with love as a feeling but with physical desires and the premarital act of love-making, some even canonise the sexual intercourse. Love will be materialised, which is absolutely against all English traditions of that time (Seeber 108-110). The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory gives the marks of metaphysical poetry: “conceits (showing a preoccupation with analogies between macrocosm and microcosm), wit, ingenuity . . . a linking for paradox and dialectical argument” (Cuddon 508). The essence of metaphysical poetry is the intellectual delectation; the poets often merge secular ideas and colloquial language with witty subtleness.

A proper definition of conceits is provided by W. R. Moses. He says that a conceit is “a passage which causes imaginative shock, usually through the stated or clearly implied linkage of things or ideas from different associational categories” (19). That implies that the concept of the poem, the basic idea, cannot be perceived without understanding the conceit, which is often extended to the whole poem. The categories the images are taken from must be so contradictory that the reader is surprised, even shocked. The imaginative distance decelerates apprehension (Moses 8), therefore we can also speak of “bold metaphors”, like Bode does in his book Einführung in die Lyrikanalyse (94). Conceits are often decorated by series of linked metaphors and they are the figures of wit (The Cambridge Companion 105). There are many different kinds of conceits, typical for the 17th century. They range from sonneteering conceits over jealousy and inventory of blazon conceits to carpe diem conceits (Cuddon 165-170), which are also sometimes called “persuasion-to-love” (Stocker 203) conceits. In this term paper I will concentrate on the carpe diem conceit Marvell uses, which is featured by “the appeal to the mistress not to delay loving because beauty fades and time is a devourer” (Cuddon 166) and the metaphysical conceit of John Donne’s “The Flea”.

3. Virginity, Sexuality and Seduction in Conceits

3.1 The Wit of Conceit in „The Flea”

The theme of “The Flea”, a typical seduction poem, is very provocative for the 17th century. The speaker woos his mistress very subtle by comparing their sexual intercourse with the intermingling of both his and her blood in the flea’s body. He opens his argumentation with the observation of a flea which has sucked blood from him and afterwards from her. He assures her, that the flea’s vampirism is just as little a disgrace as the premarital sex he wishes with her. She is not impressed at all, so he regrets her coyness and equates the intermingling with their marriage, although he is primarily interested in a sexual get-together and not in a wedding. The speaker compassionates himself because he is not granted to enjoy the stitch and being swollen by the mistress’ blood like the flea. As she is still reluctant and only menaces to kill the flea, he steps up the pressure on her: He makes “the killing of the flea at once sacrilege, murder and suicide” (Nelly 83). If she kills the flea, not only the insect has to die but she also murders him and herself, because their vital blood is within this flea. “Sacrilege” (“The Flea” l. 18) raises the insect to a religious sign for their marriage and emphasises the shame related with its homicide. The speaker makes her behaviour a sin and so he tries to compensate her anxiety of a sexual intercourse. He tells her that the loss of her maidenhood is as trivial as the loss of life she suffered from killing the flea. His clincher is that if even such a primitive creature like a flea is allowed to get pleasure from her blood, why shouldn’t he? He equals the mixture of blood in the flea with their marriage and the subsequent sexual intercourse. Concomitantly he minimizes the incident of copulation and especially of virginity, hence mocks her coyness.

In the 17th century it was believed that copulation is nothing other than the mixture of blood inside the woman (Roston 110). The whole brilliancy and subtleness of the poem is constituted by the speaker “applying the same arguments to the moral as to the physical side of life” (Nelly 83), because he says that the mixture of blood already happened and it does not matter where it happened, whether in the flea or within the mistress. He considers that it would be ridiculous now not to sleep together in reality. Moreover he conceives the opinion that the flea only does what is in his nature, so it is not to blame, just as little as the couple if it would copulate (Roston 110).

Donne is obviously witty; he plays around with the image of a flea to seduce a woman. This metaphysical conceit is a typical stylistic device Donne uses and most modern for that time (Bald 62). He searches for far-fetched analogies to build bold metaphors. Nobody would ever think about a flea if he wants to seduce a woman, but Donne builds up his conceit by the amalgamation of two far-fetched categories: one of the lowest forms of insects and sexuality. His poems are completely deliberated; he is always “one step ahead of his reader” (Roston 110). Here he arranges traps for his mistress and the reader walks right into them in concern with her. If she falls into these traps, the speaker is in an excellent position to convince her to give him her virginity, because he destroys her moral doubts. The whole poem aims at this climax, is constructed to that effect (Roston 110-112).

3.2 The Wit of Conceit in “To His Coy Mistress”

The poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell was published in 1681, thus it is a metaphysical poem. It is divided into three sections whereby Marvell starts and finishes with a profane approach to time which is analogue to and bounded by lifetime (Kremen 94). The speaker philosophizes about time in relation to the mistress’ beauty in the first part. He would admit her all the years she needs to make up her mind and hopefully decide for him, if they had “world enough, and time” (“To His Coy Mistress“ l. 1). His debauchment is an exaggerated hyperbole. He would also admire every part of her beautiful body, praise her endlessly, he would accept her coyness, would even allow her to refuse and wait for her for all eternity. But since they haven’t got the luxury of thousands of years, the speaker becomes impatiently and steps up pressure on his mistress in the second part of the poem. He starts complaining that she grows old as time goes by and that her treasured virginity will only be loved by the worms in her grave if she dies. The time peruses them adamantly so why should they wait? She could save her virginity to the bitter end, but her life will be over before she knows it. The third part of the poem (starts with line 33) offers a solution to the problem of limited time, the persona finds back to his actual idea, the pleasure of lust. Here the speaker is in the opinion that the mistress would not lose any honour if they would sleep together, so he would prefer to make the most of now and simply take the opportunity to assuage their desire. He asks her not to waste any time but start loving right now as long as they are in their prime-age and capable of doing so. That is the typical leitmotif of the carpe diem poetry: seize the day and not detain anything, less than ever loving because beauty melts away and time elapses irrecoverable.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


John Donne – “The Flea” and Andrew Marvell – “To His Coy Mistress”
Metaphysical poetry: Virginity, sexuality and seduction in conceits
Bielefeld University  (Universität)
A Survey of British Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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John, Donne, Andrew, Marvell, Survey, British, Literature, Poem, Virginity, Sexuality, Seduction, Flea, Mistress, Metaphysical, Conceit, Wit, Coy, Analysis, Poetry, 17th Century
Quote paper
Daniela Schulze (Author), 2007, John Donne – “The Flea” and Andrew Marvell – “To His Coy Mistress”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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