The Flea

Giuseppe Crespi -The Flea
Giuseppe Crespi -The Flea


The poem is a erotic metaphysical poem published like all of John Donne‘s poems posthumously. In the poem the author uses the conceit, an extended metaphor, of a flea to comment on the relationship between the speaker and a woman. The speaker tries to convince a lady to sleep with him, using the argument that if their blood mingling in the flea is harmless,then if they were to pursue a sexual relation, the mingling
would also be just as harmless.

The poem actually hinges on the idea of blood and mixing of blood. The idea that blood is powerful and the source of new life in pregnancy. The conceit also uses blood because it is one of the four humors that in medieval medicine were thought to govern a person’s life and is the one most closely associated with the topic of love. The humor of blood is related to the sanguine temperament, considered to be creative, impulsive, and pleasure seekiing.


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.

  1. Flea – Small blood sucking vermin that we believed to carry sickness with them.
  2. How little that which thou deniest me is – This is referring to the idea that sex is such a trivial thing
  3. Blood – one of the four humors. Echos with the characteristics of courageous,
    hopeful, amorous nature. All of which we see in the speaker as he addresses his love.
  4. Pamper’d swells – indication of pregnancy, the flea has become filled with their life
    and their life has mixed inside it with no sex. It is a nod to the virgin birth of Christ.
  5. One blood made of two – again indicating a pregnancy but also having a trinity image
    This is again an image that is repeated in the line O stay, three lives in one flea spare.
  6. Our marriage bed, and marriage temple – The flea has been transformed into the marriage bed
    which is an allusion to the wedding night, the first time that a man and wife should be together
    in the eyes of the church. And the marriage temple reads as related to this idea
    that the human body is the temple of the soul. There is also even more when it is tied with the
    second half of the line, because then it become almost an image of the woman’s reproductive selves.
  7. Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,/ and cloister’d in these living walls of jet
    With these two lines, Donne is creating an image of something almost a prison out of
    their relationship. Cloister’d is related to the idea of separating something from the outside
    world. Jet is a minor gem made from wood under immense pressure in the earth, it becomes
    a dark brown or black (the color of the flea).
  8. Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence – Purple is the color of royalty and the idea of coloring
    the nails in innocence blood does seem to hold ideas of original sin or the Cain and Abel story.
    Blood on a person’s hands.
  9. The last four lines of the poem really get to the heart of what Done has been getting after.
    That there is nothing evil about the act of sex, that it is part of the most natural part of life.
    The narrator is saying that he and the woman he is speaking to might as well have sex.
    Because they have already been made one inside of the flea. Their blood has mixed in the
    tiny insect and will continue its life. Therefore they should join together and become one.

Donne, John. “The Flea.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 1373. Print.

Image Source: Giuseppe Crespi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons