Part of the great fun of teaching is having students bring work to me. In just one class students have had me scurrying to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “The Last Ship,” Beowulf, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Bruce Elliot’s “Wolves Don’t Cry,” the Völsung Saga, and a little three-verse poem, “The Flea,” by John Donne. The Bruce Elliot story is entirely new to me and makes an intriguing Hallowe’en recommendation as it is creepy and disturbing and fitting for the eve of All Saints Day. However, I think the Hallowe’en allows us to look at “The Flea” in a new way.
Is this a love poem? Is it a satire? Is it the playful bedtime play of lovers? Is it a brazen porn-riddled wink at 17th-century authority? Should Freud have a say? Or Shakespeare’s censor? Is it the prophetic warning that whatever love may bring there is always an epidemic nearby? Is it a reflection upon the mystery of lovers’ union? the mingled blood of the marriage bed? the mutual submission that is self-death in the giving of one’s self to the other?
Or does our attentiveness to darkness at Hallowe’en and the Gothic and horror traditions that attend it teach us another way to read this poem? Is there not something monstrous and murderous and vampyric about this little poem, set in triadic loops of death and blood?
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
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.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
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.
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 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:
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.