The Flea - John Donne #
In the Middle Ages, poetry was sung by minstrels in the Market place. From there it moved into the courts of the Monarchs and became the preserve of the aristocracy - as entertainment - John Donne. As the middle class gained their wealth it moved into the parlours of over stuffed gentility. Eventually poetry became the preserve of the Academia, studied in literature courses limited to esoteric coteries. Modern poetry attempts to appeal to the masses and should be enjoyed at first reading.
Men have been pursuing women since time immemorial. Primitive man’s concept of wooing a woman was to scour their territory, ambush the most desirable young girl, club her, then drag her by the hair, back to his cave and tame her to keep house for him and provide comfort for him at night. Aristocratic men, slightly more sophisticated, used their wealth, status and power to negotiate favorable contracts for bloodline procreation and younger ones for sexual favours. Rulers often had harems.
King David not only seduced Bathesheba, but in his old age relied on young virgins to keep warm at night.
(3) When David was old and stricken in years; his servants found a young virgin to lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat. (4) And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not. Kings I.
You might wonder why he doesn’t avail himself of some of Bathsheba’s warmth?
King Solomon’s image is the ideal convergence of wisdom, opulence, and power in the person of a king. Yet he was known to have hundreds of wives as well as concubines.
Solomon’s harem consisted of approximately 700 wives and 300 concubines. But king Solomon loved many strange women, including the Queen of Sheba, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. Kings 11 (KJV)
All religions tended to treat women as mere chattel, necessary for propagation of the species and comfort for men. Has anything changed?
One of the first troubadour love poets, French King William, advances the novel argument, that if women were freely courted, they would prove more valuable to share your life with.
He shows that his love for his women is unquenchable and that by loving her, she returns his love by kissing him in her room or under a tree. Rather than she becoming a nun and he a monk, they enjoy the world and sing and cry. This could be a reference to the tragic tale of Heloise and Abelard, his contemporaries. Is this the first challenge of St Paul’s advice about chastity?
Donne admitted: I did best when I had least truth for my subjects.
Modern ideas of sincerity were not as important in Donne’s early poetry.
The Flea #
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Confess it, this cannot be said
A sin, or shame or loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are:
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make thee apt to kill me,
Let not to this, self murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
In what could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself, nor me the weaker now;
Tis true, then learn how false, fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
Donne is famous for his use of Conceits: In Elizabethan times - an extended metaphor, comparison or analogy, whose ingenuity is more striking than its validity. (see “wit”) - surprising, striking, wildly unexpected. Dr Samuel Johnson, writing 150 years after Donne’s death criticised him for:
“The most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together.”
He also describes this quality as:
“A combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult remembrances in things apparently unlike”.
The fact that fleas carry diseases like the plaque that killed half the population of Europe in his time, makes this comparison even more extraordinary, demonstrating Donne’s impudence.
Like most of his poems, he begins with a dramatic opening. This poem takes the form of an extended, logical, highly structured , but manipulated argument that if the flea can enjoy your body, why can’t I, leading to a conclusion that she should not resist him. It uses colloquial and conversational language of mono and di-syllabic words. It attempts to reconcile the two dichotomies of human life, sexual desire and religious righteousness. The argument uses a lot of religious language, equating carnal love with the divine symbols - bed - a temple, privacy - cloistered, sacrilege and three lives - the trinity.
Donne uses couplets with a regular rhyme scheme with a highly structured form creating the impression of a conclusive argument.
Women may be the passive and recipient audience of a male’s address whose only power exists in the force of his expressive and persuasive arguments - death (Momento Mori) awaits us so we must make the most of the time we have here - Carpe diem.