The Flea, John Donne

Yesterday’s poem got me thinking about my Dad and how much he influenced my love of literature. He had studied English and I remember the summer before I started my A-levels he typed out an “essential” reading list for me as I was studying English Literature. I remember reading lots of literature that I hadn’t really engaged with before, particularly twentieth-century classics such as The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) and Room at the Top (john Braine) amongst others. He also tried to give me all his old editions of the texts he studied, which of course at the time I was quite sniffy about thinking they weren’t modern enough. There are still some at my Mum’s house and now that Dad is no longer here its quite nice to see his notes in the margins. I guess he was a real influence in my decision to study English at University although I do not remember him pushing me, just listening, respecting your decision and suggesting ways forward without forcing his viewpoint. That was very much my Dad’s style. One of the people on his list was John Donne. Dad loved John Donne’s humour and use of intellectual innuendo. It appealed to him on many levels and as a late convertor to Christianity too he appreciated Donne’s later, spiritual works. I remember almost being surprised by the sexual content but intrigued by the complex imagery, my first introduction to metaphysical poetry. So in honour of my Dad and his impact on my love of poetry, today’s poem is a classic of Donne’s.

John Donne

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 is 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.

First published 1633

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