October 22, 2003

From Gerald R. Lucas

The Flea[1]
By: John Donne (1633)

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said 5
A sin, nor shame, nor 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.[2]

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,[3] 10
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, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet. 15
     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,[4] hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence? 20
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
     ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be: 25
     Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
     Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.


  1. A fun and clever carpe diem poem, “The Flea” is an extended conceit and logical argument in a microdrama of seduction. In 1894, critic Edmund Gosse called the poem a “gross and offensive piece of extravagance,” but acknowledges that it, along with “The Good Morrow,” are detailed, personal, and has “the stamp of life on them” (Bloom 2008, p. 101). While not published until after Donne’s death, “The Flea” was likely written in the 1590s when the poet’s interests leaves the pursuit of earthly pleasure and begins his more philosophical musings that characterize his mature works (Bloom 2008, p. 117).
  2. I.e., The flea has had a mini consummation—what the woman denies the man—by penetrating, sucking, and mingling the blood of the couple. “Swells” in line 8 suggests a pregnancy.
  3. The young lady goes to kill the flea, and the young man stops her, if only for a moment.
  4. The young lady has killed the flea.

works cited

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. (2008). John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets. Bloom’s Classic Critical Views. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism.