Saturday, 18 August 2012

Analysis of “The Flea” a poem by John Donne

‘The Flea’ is a poem belonging to the metaphysical school of poetry and so, we have the use of the metaphysical conceit employed through the image of a ‘flea’. Though only composed of three stanzas, it has a well put argument that is concluded so grandly, as to leave the lady in question quite flummoxed.

Stanza One
The basic thrust of the poem is the speaker’s need to turn his “coy mistress” into a “willing mistress”. The flea has bitten him and then her (like the love bug), leaving a tiny mark on the skin quite like a love bite. He points out the fact that what he asks of his mistress is a little thing. He wants their union through physical intimacy which this flea has achieved by the symbolic mingling of their bloods within its body.

This picture is slightly grotesque, even Marvell didn’t do any better when he spoke of worms devouring his mistress’ virginity in the tomb. While society puts a crown on chastity yet poems are written where men put a halo on their lust by stating that physical union leads to a higher spiritual union and life is much too short to wait.
Since the flea has taken the liberty of enjoying a taste of her minus the wooing, she needn’t protest that what has occurred is a sin or shameful and dishonoring. The flea is luckier than the lovers for it gets a chance to savour what they cannot.

The contradiction here exists in the fact that had the lady been willing, she would have been termed ‘loose’. Thus, the woman is looked at through the eyes of a man. Had she been a willing mistress she would have been a scandal but as a coy one she has poems flung at her feet.

Stanza Two

Clearly the lady now intends to do away with the flea and is in the act of killing it when the poet beseeches her to stay her hand. Within the flea’s organism they are almost married is his argument. The flea is transformed into a temple where both the lovers are contained; it is where their love has been consummated. The flea has given them a chance of union even though parental consent is unavailable to their match. It would be self-murder to kill the flea as she as well as the poet reside within its body. Thus, it would be a murder of not one creature but three.
Here, we have the spiritual argument thrown in where the flea represents the trinity almost. The use of the word ‘cloister’ too brings on these overtones. Marriage is a religious and social contract that has been consolidated by the flea and so to kill it would be sacrilege. Thus, even the Devil can court scripture to suit his purposes.

Stanza Three

His mistress is now cruel for she not only denies him but she also perpetuates the murder of an innocent flea. The poet turns the tables by stating the flea was innocent for it took just a drop of blood from her. Despite this she feels victorious can counters that despite the death of the flea and all the associations of union that her lover had been hanging around it, the flea’s death has made their love no weaker. But he asserts that it may be true but all her fears for her reputation are as false as her fears of the flea were. The flea just took a few drops of blood from her and if she were to give up her honour to him she would be losing just that much and no more. If killing the flea is no sin or shame then why should she hold such false fears over her loss of virginity?

The poem through this ending brings out the extreme patriarchal tones of the society for it is men who seek chastity in women and yet expect their mistress to be sexually willing. The speaker of the poem has no scruples in saying that loss of virginity before marriage is no sin even though the religion and society of the day intoned so. Therefore, it is clear that it is in a man’s hand to make the law, to break it, justify it, twist it, judge it, condemn it and to dissemble it in such a way that it suits his purpose. All a woman can do is say ‘no’ even while the man eggs her to say yes.

Like Satan in the garden of Eden, the speaker begs his mistress to taste the forbidden fruit. And if Eve does taste the fruit, will she alone be the fallen or cause of the fall this time around too?

Other observations

The poem is a dramatic monologue which means that there is one speaker that speaks to the audience. Because of this, we hear only one point of view. This is the poet speaking in the second voice according to Eliot’s interpretations of the three voices of poetry.

When we think of a flea a pesky irritating insect comes to mind. The poet has given a new metaphorical meaning to the flea by making new associations with it. The flea is a symbol of union and marriage and so, Donne does what Shelley speaks of in his essay ‘Defence of Poetry’:

“Their language is vitally metaphorical; that is it marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until words which represent them become through time signs for portions and classes of thoughts, instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then, if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been disorganized, language will be dead…”