No Comment, Quotation — March 22, 2009, 6:18 am

Donne’s Flea

serani-flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck’d 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 pamper’d swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, 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 cloister’d 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.

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 suck’d 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.

John Donne, The Flea (ca. 1610) in Poems of John Donne, vol. 1, pp. 1-2 (E. K. Chambers ed. 1896)


The flea has an enviable position in literature, especially from the fables of Aesop to the various flea-inspired tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Sometime in the later nineteenth century, modern notions of sanitation intervened, and its literary demise began. But its role varies—it is often somewhat comic, reminding man of the frailty of his condition and of the fact that even the tiniest and most unassuming of creatures can afflict him. (Truer than many knew at the time, of course, since we now know that the flea was the principal vehicle for the spread of the Black Death and numerous other plagues). But the peak of the flea as a subject of art must have been in the seventeenth century, when it served as a subject for dozens of significant paintings (by Crespi, Piazzetta, de la Tour and Serani, for instance, whose painting provides a subtly masked sexuality) and became a steady topic of poets and songwriters. From this period, Donne’s poem stands at the unchallenged pinnacle. It’s a poetic tour-de-force, an amazing demonstration of innovation and dexterity. It addresses simultaneously an utterly trivial subject and one which could not be more profound, and its imagery is extremely daring. The voice is also intriguing–it opens with an imperative tone, then turns philosophical, introspective, then it marshals argument for a cause. The voice could just as easily be that of a man or a woman, moreover.

Listen to John Gielgud and Julian Glover read and discuss John Donne’s The Flea in the BBC’s “Six Centuries of Verse: The Metaphysical and Devotional Poets” (1984)

Listen to Andreas Scholl sing John Dowland’s I Saw My Lady Weep from the Second Booke of Songes (1600) from a performance in the Schwetzinger Festspiele. This is a very impressive melding of song and lute; the human voice will inevitably tend to dominate, but the lutenist’s role is absolutely that of a coequal. Dowland and Donne are not merely rough contemporaries, their artistic temperament is very close, and their thematic treatments overlap very closely. This song wells with a strong sense of Elizabethan melancholy, and it presents a very Donne-like paradox in which the lady’s beauty competes with and surmounts the report of her sorrow. It also ends unexpectedly with a fifth, leading many to suppose that it is to be paired with another song, which follows it in the Second Booke, namely, Flow My Tears, probably the best known of all of Dowland’s songs. Scholl’s rendition of that song follows.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2016

Isn’t It Romantic?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trusted Traveler

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Iowa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Queen and I

Disunified Front

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.
Article
The Queen and I·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Buckingham Palace is a theater in need of renovation. There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room. The plants are tired. Plastic is nailed to walls and mirrors. The ballroom is set for a ghostly banquet. Everyone is whispering, for we are in a mad kind of church. A child weeps.”
Photograph (detail) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Article
We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If I really wanted to learn about the Islamic State, Hassan told me, I ought to speak to his friend Samir, a young gay soldier in the Syrian Army who’d been fighting jihadis intermittently for the past four years.”
Photograph (detail) by Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty

Estimated number of American senior citizens who played tackle football last year:

47,000

An island of fairy penguins was successfully defended against foxes and feral dogs by Maremma sheepdogs.

In Turlock, California, nearly 3,500 samples of bull semen were stolen from the back of a truck.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today