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

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Season 5 of Louie (FX), Louie is a new kind of superhero. Like Wonder Woman, the canonical superhero he most resembles, Louie’s distinctive superpower is love.”
Illustration by Demetrios Psillos
Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today