Analysis of The Flea by John Donne


John Donne (22 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English poet, scholar, soldier and secretary born into a Catholic family, a remnant of the Catholic Revival, who reluctantly became a cleric in the Church of England. He was Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London (1621–1631). He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His poetical works are noted for their metaphorical and sensual style and include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, and satires. He is also known for his sermons. Read more

The speaker in the poem, The Flea written in the 1590s, tries to seduce his mistress with an extended metaphor (whole poem is indirectly something else) : both he and she have been bitten by the same flea, meaning their separate blood now mingles inside the flea’s body. Similarly, having sex is no different. It is as much a display of wit and erudition as a serious attempt to seduce the mistress.



Title: modified by ‘the’ flea, a blood sucking minute parasite, usually associated with domestic animals is a conceit in the poem which is an unusual comparison to love, sex and marriage.

Form: The lines of the poem alternates between iambic tetrameter and pentameter. In the final tercet, the first line is in iambic tetrameter and the final two in iambic pentameter. This is an unusual form: 9 line stanzas are rare in English poetry, and the poem’s alternating meters do not follow an established pattern. The form of the poem suggests the intimacy between the speaker and the mistress: the adhesive force of the rhyme pulls the two lines of each couplet together, creating a sonic embrace. But the discrepancy between the two meters suggests that some discontent lingers in that intimacy.

Meter: alternate between iambic tetrameter (four poetic feet per line) and iambic pentameter (five feet per line).

Rhyme scheme: AABBCCDDD (rhyming couplets, ending rhyming tercets)

Tone: has an intensity and immediacy of emotion

Theme: Sex and marriage: emphasizes the need for physical union, but physical love merges with the spiritual. /sex and religion: goes parallel with the spiritual concepts of love.

Narration: first person, anonymous lover addressing his beloved

Main techniques: extended metaphor, conceits


Deep-end Analysis:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,  

How little that which thou deniest me is;  

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;  

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor 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.


symbol: blood (usually symbolizes life, here the blood implies the physical union, holy act of marriage)

The Flea” uses enjambment irregularly, without a strong or regular pattern. The poem is more often end-stopped

caesura: A sin, nor shame/ And this, alas, is more… (emotional pauses, shows the force of emotions of the speaker)

anaphora: and, and (emphasizes that the flea experiences more freedom to consume the mistress than him)

repetition: mark, mark/ sucked, suck (to emphasize facts)

diction: suck, maidenhead, blood (erotic undertone showing the speakers intent)

consonance: note the repetition of consonant sounds that shows the sighing of desperation of the speaker

personification: the flea is indirectly given humane qualities as it possesses bloods of them.

apostrophe: whole poem is an address to a person whose voice is not heard in the poem.


John Donne, asks his beloved to observe the flea carefully and mark that what she denies to him is not of much significance -she must acknowledge that this mingling of their blood in the body of the flea is neither sin, nor shame, nor loss of virginity. The lover regrets that such direct enjoyment and consummation is not possible for human beings.


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, w'are met,  

And cloistered in these living walls of jet.   

Though use make you apt to kill me,   

Let not to that, self-murder added be,   

And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.


conceits: marriage bed, marriage temple, sacrilege (flea is compared to)

allusion: Donne’s diction focuses into biblical references giving the poem a religious undertone like ‘the flea, you and I’ to holy trinity making the union of them a holy thing. And the constant word sin, blood as well as sacrilege connect this poem to the church.

metaphor: living walls of jet (the flea, jet might be suggestive of thick blood)

conversational language: poet uses a persuasive, conversational language.


The lover urges not to kill the flea personifying it as a holy being. Indirectly he shows his intent that they are already married according to social norms, it would not be a sin to fulfil their sexual desires. His logical play with the concept of love and marriage is a kind of criticism to those platonic concepts of love prevailed in the era. Love is not totally mental requirement but a physical one too.


Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?  

Wherein 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 thy self, nor me the weaker now;   

’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:   

Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,   

Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.


visual imagery: purpled thy nail

inversion: might show the confusion and force of emotion of the speaker.


The lover’s logic is as she has lost little life in the death of the flea which sucked her blood, so she will lose only little honour in yielding herself to him. He teases the beloved with wit and logic pointing out that they are still strong after killing the flea, which represent themselves and the social norms of love and marriage. He persuades his beloved to give in forgetting the social barriers which hinder them to have physical pleasures.

Through the poem The Flea, Donne has demolished the conventional Petrarchan attitude towards love, as well as the false notions of honour and chastity, and demonstrated that even true, spiritual love has its basis in physical union.

You may read: Analysis of Go and Catch a Falling Star by John Donne here

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