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Difficulties of Identifying Sexual Status in Donne's 'the Flea'

  • Date Submitted: 01/27/2010 11:12 PM
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A Reading of Donne\'s \'The Flea\'

Jimmy Breck-Mc Kye

Girton College

Cambridge University

United Kingdom

It is common to ascribe to Donne the status of archetypal logical poet- a man whose works are tightly crafted, confident, and certain in their application of metaphor and analogy. True enough, Donne’s poem seems to suggest a certain self-security: we see a tight, predictable rhyme scheme, and an ordered structure. There is also arguably a wealth of rhetorical resources - Donne does not shy away from using the lexis of the military (“triumph’st”), the medical (“two bloods…mingled”) or even the religious (“cloysterd”; “sacrilege”). Such a feature that might be read as hinting at Donne’s essential confidence in his ability to create a unified philosophy, to adapt a wide range of discourses, to demonstrate poetic craft. However, I want to suggest that the relations of power and position of sexuality in this small poem are a great deal less certain than such an interpretation might suggest.

At the very least, Donne is not simply providing a stylised, easy conclusion but is engaging in a real rhetorical struggle. He chooses to employ exuberant, self-conscious metaphors that often contradict themselves. The conclusion of his poem,

            Just so much honor, when thou yeeld\'st to mee,

            Will wast, as this flea\'s death tooke life from thee

simultaneously insists on the identification of the flea with the sexual union (i.e. it may be compared to ‘yielding’) and on the impossibility of doing so (referring to the mistress’ counter-argument, where the flea’s death cannot be equated to the death of man and wife). That is, one might translate the meaning of the climax as: ‘this flea’s death did not kill you, and therefore the flea cannot be identified with us, yet this flea represents us, and so the...


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