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 John Donne 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 block 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 John Donne 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!)
The Poetry Foundation
The Foundation's website has the best long biography of Donne we've seen online.
This site includes a huge selection of Donne's poems, sermons, and essays, all of which are brilliant.
British Actor Reads "The Flea"
The great British actor Julian Glover reads "The Flea." The best part is when the camera zooms out to reveal...a bed!
Click the play button above the image to hear a reading of the poem.
This painting by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, titled "The Flea," could almost serve as an illustration for the poem.
A Real Flea
Did you ever notice that fleas look like alien creatures?
1633 Edition of "The Flea"
A great resource: you can look at a scanned copy of the first edition of Donne's poetry, published after his death in 1633. Check out all the crazy Renaissance spellings.
The Variorum Edition of the Poems of John Donne
If you really want to be a Donne scholar, you should get your hands on this multivolume edition of his collected works. It's the authoritative version.
Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe, by William Rosen
This book is apparently an example of "microbial history." It describes how the first outbreak of the Bubonic Plague (carried by fleas!) changed the history of Europe.