Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny’st me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sinne, nor shame, nor losse of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where wee almost, yea more than maryed are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our mariage bed, and mariage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.
Though use make you apt to kill mee,
Let not to that, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.
Cruell and sodaine, hast thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and saist that thou
Find’st not thy selfe, nor mee the weaker now;
‘Tis true, then learne how false, fears bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee;
Will wast, as this flee’s death tooke life from thee.
This poem is notorious for its eponymous conceit, but what really stands out to me is the turn between stanzas two and three—where that conceit is obliterated. The innocent little gap on the page masquerading as a stanza break hides the wreckage of the poem you have been reading. No, not a turn; a demolition. Donne builds his conceit of flea-as-love-nest over the first two stanzas, expending considerable wit and rhetorical firepower to do so, somehow arriving at the inevitable conclusion that the flea is a “mariage temple” for the speaker and his beloved, where they, incredibly, are not just married but more than married (how is one more than married?). Then, with one stab of the beloved’s fingernail, the literal flea is kaput, so too the figurative flight of it—and, seemingly, the whole argumentative basis of the poem, its seedy raison d’être. Donne, in a presciently postmodern moment, allows the rhetorical framework of the poem to be broken; indeed, the poem is revealed to be nothing but rhetorical framework. How does it, or Donne, recover from this?
I like to think that, as a master wit and conceited conceit technician, Donne threw this little bomb into the poem to give himself a challenge. Seduction had become just too easy. Wonderfully, the rupture of the poem’s rhetorical frame does not take the reader out of the poem but more deeply into it: the beloved materializes as a living, wily being, not a gullible paper target, and the poem seems not written but transpiring between two people, straight out of O’Hara’s “Personism.” With a little more rhetorical maneuvering, Donne’s speaker still comes out craftily on top, backdooring the beloved with the argument that yes, she won the argument, as he wanted her to all along; the whole elaborate conceit about the flea was a fake-out. Of course the conceit was false, of course it was all rhetoric, just as her whole argument about preserving her “honor” is rhetoric. There is an amusing unflappability to the speaker, a rhetorical resourcefulness that is extremely sexy, all the more so because he has shown himself, via the flea, to be vulnerable, and found a way to “win” the argument by allowing his beloved to win it. Yes, definitely more than marriage material.
Jason Koo is the author of America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, forthcoming 2013) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. His recent work has appeared in The Yale Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Octopus and elsewhere. The winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center and the New York State Writers Institute, he is an Assistant Professor of English at Quinnipiac University and Founder and Executive Director of Brooklyn Poets.