Study Guide

The Flea Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By John Donne

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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 Flea

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.

  • Line 1: He begins the poem by directing the attention of his beloved to the flea. Donne uses the device of apostrophe by speaking to a person outside the poem who cannot respond.
  • Line 8: He personifies the flea as if it were a "pamper'd" person, gorging on a feast of blood. Here we get the oh-so-delicious image of a flea swelling with blood.
  • Line 10: The speaker uses metaphor to equate blood with life: the flea contains three lives, its own, his, and hers.
  • Line 20: Oh, no! She kills the flea, but the grandiose rhetoric about "the blood of innocence" contrasts with the triviality of a dot of blood on a fingernail.

Marriage and Religion

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.

  • Line 4: "Blood" is used both literally and figuratively throughout the poem, which makes it a kind of pun. On the literal level, that flea really does contain two people's blood. But metaphorically, when two people procreate we often talk about "mixing bloodlines," and Donne plays with this double meaning.
  • Line 10: The idea that the flea contains three lives is also metaphorical. The speaker thinks of "blood" as a metonym for "essence" or "life." It is a part of a creature that represents another aspect of it. Also, the image of three-in-one alludes to the Holy Trinity, in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are contained in one unity.
  • Lines 11-13: Their so-called "marriage" is an extended metaphor that stems from the pun on two kinds of "blood": literal blood and family relations. Mixing of bloodlines is what happens through marriage.
  • Lines 14-15: He extends the metaphor even further, saying that neither she nor her parents would approve of the union. The flea is compared to a church or "cloister" with black walls, in which the marriage ceremony takes place.
  • Lines 16-18: Returning to the metaphor that the flea contains their lives, the speaker accuses her of trying to commit a mortal sin by killing the flea. She would be murdering him and committing suicide herself. Also, she would desecrate the institution of marriage, by smashing the "marriage temple."

Sex

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.

  • Line 2: You can get away with so much in a poem by simply using vague language. The phrase "that which" has very sexual overtones. We know which that he's talking about.
  • Line 7: The "enjoyment" of the flea is a pun. The flea literally "enjoys" her blood, but to the speaker, it also "enjoys" her in the erotic way that he would like to "enjoy" her.
  • Line 25: "False fears" is an example of alliteration that highlights her concern about the loss of chastity.
  • Lines 26-27: "Yield'st" is a small pun. He wants her to "yield" to the (twisted!) logic of his argument, but he also wants her to "yield" to him...in bed. Yes, we're serious. Also, he uses a simile that compares the preservation of her life when the flea dies to the preservation of her honor after she has given in to him.

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