The speaker in this poem reminds us of one of those little red devils that sits on your shoulder and tries to convince you to do something bad. Maybe you haven't had the little-red-devil experience, but you've probably seen it on countless cartoons, as well as in a hilarious scene involving Tracy Jordan and Kenneth the Page on the TV show 30 Rock. Usually, there's a saintly angel to offset the devil, but there are no angels in this poem to advise the woman.
The devil speaks, as a good devil should, in simple and seductive rhymes...the better to charm your ears with! He thinks that if he turns his tricky arguments into songs, the woman will be less likely to think through their implications. Like the snake that tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden, the devil employs sibilance, or the repeated use of "s" sounds. In the first stanza, for example: "deniest," "suck'd," "first," "sucks," "know'st," "sin," "shame."
Also, he tries to make the woman feel guilty by adopting a theatrical tone, which comes through strongly when you read the poem aloud. It's almost as if the poem has stage directions: "alas" (he puts his hand to his forehead, sadly), "O stay" (he lunges to block her rising hand), "cruel and sudden" (he backs away from her, horrified).
Finally, he varies the rhythm, using lots of pauses (called caesuras) in the middle of the lines, which allows more time for the seeds of doubt and temptation to slip into the woman's mind. These pauses also help him turn the argument completely around in a heartbeat, as in the line: "'Tis true; then learn how false fears be." In short, he's a sneaky little devil.
"The Flea" – kind of sounds like an alternative British rock band, doesn't it? It's a simple title, and just a bit edgy. You certainly don't expect a love poem. Thus, the title plays against our expectations in the subtlest of ways. We think that an insect will be the main focus of the poem, but the flea is just an excuse for the speaker to woo his lady-friend.
Like many works by the Metaphysical Poets, "The Flea" contains wild shifts in the imaginative setting of the poem (the images you think about as a reader), even as the literal setting stays in one place. Literally, the poem is set anywhere you might find fleas, which in Renaissance England included...everywhere. Seriously, we're sure there were fleas even in the royal palace. No exterminators back in the day, you know.
Imaginatively, the poem begins by zooming in on the woman's smooth, pale arm. Hear the buzzing of the flea as it lands on her skin and begins to delicately suck her blood. The insect swells up like Violet Beauregarde turning into a giant blueberry in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Next we actually go inside the flea, where a marriage is consecrated with the mingling of two bloods. See the bride's parents fuming angrily in the aisles of the church...hey, wait a minute, are those black church walls...moving? Yes, the church is aliiiiive, and those walls are nothing but the insides of the flea.
Again the poem moves outside the flea. The woman's hand comes down – smack – on the bloodsucking flea, coloring one of her nails "purple" with its blood and hers. The speaker looks aghast, as if the world has just ended, but he gets over it a moment later.
The speaker of "The Flea" is a smart aleck who will never admit to having lost an argument. You could catch him in some ridiculously absurd conclusion, and he would be like, "A-ha! But that just proves that this other thing I said was right!" And then you would go: FACEPALMS. In this poem, for example, he changes his argument a couple of times. At first he claims that falling for his charms won't cause his beloved any shame. Then he says it's too late to worry about shame because they are already married. Then he accuses her of attempted murder. Then this argument is exposed as a fraud, which he thinks proves the first argument. Etc., etc. All in a day's work for a seducer.
Interestingly, the speaker also seems to be a devout Christian, or at least he wants the woman to think he is. He uses religious imagery, including allusions to Jesus Christ and the Trinity, to argue that killing the flea would be a horrible sin. He talks a lot about the sanctity of marriage, probably because he wants to convince her that he's an honorable gentleman, not someone looking for a one-night stand. He has a lot of work to do on that front, because apparently neither her parents nor the woman in question have much interest in their marriage. In other words, he's probably not some gorgeous prince with three estates and a lot of fancy paintings. His greatest wealth is his capacity for language.
The nice thing about John Donne is that he often picks a single idea and just runs with it. He beats it to death and then beats it some more. In this case, that single idea (or "metaphysical conceit," if you want to get technical) is that the mixing of blood in the flea is somehow similar to the consecration of a marriage through sex. If you keep this idea in mind while reading, you'll make it through the poem just fine. That said, you might want to have a dictionary handy to look up words like "maidenhead," "cloistered," "use" (it's not the standard usage of this word), and "jet" (black).
Donne wasn't afraid to use sexual themes, language, and imagery to make a spiritual point...or vice-versa. He seemed to think that the erotic life had an almost mystical power to unite people, or to unite people with God. In some of Donne's most famous religious poems, like the "Holy Sonnets," he asks God to treat him like a lover and even to "ravish," or rape, him. "The Flea," on the other hand, is more of a love poem, but the speaker nonetheless treats sex as if it fulfilled a religious purpose within the sacrament of marriage. Whereas in the modern age sex and religion have often seemed opposed, in Donne's poetry they have a natural and familiar relation with each other.
This little poem is a marvel of form and rhythm. Donne makes the writing look so easy that you hardly notice everything going on beneath the surface.
Let's start with the rhyme scheme: AABBCCDDD. These couplets (and one triplet at the end of the stanza) help you keep track of the speaker's argument, which generally proceeds in two-line units. So each time we get a new rhyme, we're also getting a new idea. The rhyme words are very simple, usually limited to one syllable: this/is, thou/now, met/jet. The most commonly used rhyme words are "thee" and "be." Notice, too, Donne's clever pairing of "me," "thee," and "be" at the end of the poem. He manages to unite the couple in rhyme, if not in real life.
The poem's main rhythmic unit is the iamb: a short, unaccented syllable followed by a long, accented syllable:
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mar-riage bed, and mar-riage tem-ple is (lines 12-13)
The lines alternate between eight and ten syllables (iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter). Each stanza has nine lines, and the first and last line of each stanza has eight syllables.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The tiny insect is the primary image of the poem, through which all the metaphors and puns that Donne is famous for are woven. He takes advantage of the contrast between the small size and general insignificance of the flea and the monumental importance that the speaker ascribes to it. Of course, this is all meant to be very humorous and witty, from the author's perspective if not the speaker's.
The flea graduates from household pest to religious symbol: what a promotion! The poem has religious overtones all over the place. Though we have the sneaking suspicion that the speaker just wants to have sex with the woman, he tries to argue that he wants to consecrate a holy and sacred religious ritual: marriage, the union of two lives. The flea represents this union because it contains the blood of both of them. He even tries to accuse the woman of attempting not one but three mortal sins when she raises her hand to crush the little bugger.
When it comes down to it, this poem is about trying to get a woman into bed. We would hate to be simplistic and take away from all the rhetorical fireworks that Donne sets off in order to distract us, but sometimes you've got to call a spade a spade. The speaker never comes out and says he wants to have sex with the woman, but that's precisely what a "marriage bed" is for. He doesn't want to scare her off by reminding her of the blunt truth that having sex with him would, in fact, result in a loss of chastity.
Donne beats around the proverbial bush quite a lot in "The Flea," but we know what he means with all this talk about the marriage bed and the mixing of "blood" (as in, bloodlines and bodily fluids). Lofty as he makes it sound, it's still sex. Stripped of its rhetoric, this poem could have emerged from the mind of a thirteen-year-old, so we think PG-13 is appropriate.