Sexuality in John Donne's The Flea Essay

Sexuality in John Donne's The Flea Essay

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A Reading of John Donne's 'The Flea'


It is common to ascribe to Donne the status of archetypal logical poet- a man whose works are tightly crafted, confident, and certain in their application of metaphor and analogy. True enough, Donne’s poem seems to suggest a certain self-security: we see a tight, predictable rhyme scheme, and an ordered structure. There is also arguably a wealth of rhetorical resources - Donne does not shy away from using the lexis of the military (“triumph’st”), the medical (“two bloods…mingled”) or even the religious (“cloysterd”, “sacrilege”). Such a feature that might be read as hinting at Donne’s essential confidence in his ability to create a unified philosophy, to adapt a wide range of discourses, to demonstrate poetic craft. However, I want to suggest that the relations of power and position of sexuality in this small poem are a great deal less certain than such an interpretation might suggest.

At the very least, Donne is not simply providing a stylised, easy conclusion but is engaging in a real rhetorical struggle. He chooses to employ exuberant, self-conscious metaphors that often contradict themselves. The conclusion of his poem,

Just so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee

simultaneously insists on the identification of the flea with the sexual union (i.e. it may be compared to ‘yielding’) and on the impossibility of doing so (referring to the mistress’ counter-argument, where the flea’s death cannot be equated to the death of man and wife). That is, one might translate the meaning of the climax as: ‘this flea’s death did not kill you, and therefore the flea cannot be identified with us, yet this flea rep...


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...e taken by “this flea’s death”. It is noticeable how this ‘triumph’ actually fits rather neatly into Donne’s rhyme, and more importantly how his choice of pronouns (“thou…thyself…mee”) alerts us to this line being Donne’s rendering of her speech- his pronouns reflect his own perspective. As indirect speech, the feminine voice is interpreted, defined and staged through the poet’s essentially masculine perspective.

This male-ordained self-castration makes the supposedly easy task of assigning gender roles in The Flea a far more complex matter. Donne’s poem hints not at stable patriarchy, but an early modern society questioning and playing with concepts of gender and associated forms of power. There is a straddling of public and private spheres here, yet also a failure to achieve secure identity in either. The Flea points towards a symbolic order in a state of flux.

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