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John Donne Poems “The Apparition” and “The Flea” Essay

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2021

John Donne poems “The Apparition” and “The Flea” have many features in common. Both are dramatic monologues in which a male speaker attempts to seduce a female virgin. Both speakers have tried many times before to seduce the woman but without success. Both speakers use ingenious but bizarre seductive strategies. Both poems give new twists to the conventional cliché in which the cruel mistress is causing her suitor’s death by her refusal to satisfy his desires. Both poems end without resolving the conflict: they do not say whether the seduction attempt was successful or unsuccessful. Finally, both poems (especially “The Apparition”) have been badly misread by an astonishing number οf scholars and critics. (Blythe 108-110) It may therefore be οf value to examine the two poems side by side. Though each is self-contained, each may throw light upon the other.

“The Apparition” has been misread by generations οf interpreters as an expression οf hate and revulsion in which the motive οf the speaker, a rejected lover, is revenge. It is, in reality, a poem οf thwarted love and unspent desire in which the speaker makes a last desperate effort to obtain his lady’s favors. In doing so, he adopts a new strategy. In the past he has presumably tried and failed with all the usual methods-praising the lady’s beauty, flattering her in various ways, and declaring the strength and depth οf his passion. This time he attempts to frighten her into his arms. Instead οf telling her how much he loves her, he tells her that his love “is spent.” By portraying himself as having slipped the hook, he may make himself seem more valuable in her eyes than when she was assured οf his devotion. He predicts that, if she rejects him, she will in the future have to settle for a feebler, less passionate lover. He attempts to frighten her with the prospect οf his ghost’s appearing at her bedside, scaring her to death. But, most οf all, he tries to terrify her by threatening that his ghost will utter some unspecified but awful pronouncement or curse upon her (possibly capable οf damning her soul for eternity), the nature and content οf which he will not reveal to her now, because (he says) he wants revenge, and if he told her now, she would do anything necessary to avoid it.

But the speaker’s assertion that his love (desire would be a more accurate term) “is spent” is undermined by the whole tone and intensity οf the poem. If he no longer cares about her, why should her “scorn” be killing him? Would it not be more logical for him to say he was “cured”? And why should he send his ghost to her bedside? Obviously he still has intense feelings concerning her.

In “The Flea” a man attempts to seduce a woman by the use οf highly ingenious and highly sophistical reasoning. Basically, his argument is that losing her virginity will be no more damaging to her than being bitten by a flea.

A particularly engaging feature οf the poem is its resemblance to a miniature play. It has two characters, dramatic conflict, implied dialogue (though we hear only one speaker), and stage action. The action, indicated by stage directions embodied in the dialogue, takes place before and between the stanzas. (Julius 1-3)

Before the first stanza, a flea has bitten the young man and then has jumped to the young woman and begun to bite her. The young man sees an opportunity and seizes it. He points to the flea and remarks that it has innocently mingled their bloods within itself, which is no more than sexual intercourse does (according to Renaissance belief) and yet is more than she will allow to them. (When he says “more than we would do,” he means, οf course, more than she would do, for he is eager to do it.) His remark that the flea’s action cannot be called a “sin” or “shame” or “loss οf maidenhead” indicates that she is a virgin and wishes to preserve her virginity until she can surrender it without sin.

Between the first and second stanzas the young lady raises her finger to squash the flea. The young man protests, urging her to spare the flea, in which, because οf their commingled bloods, they “almost, yea more than married are.” With dazzling sleight-of-wit he has parlayed his claim that the mingling οf their bloods within the flea is tantamount to a sinless act οf sexual intercourse into a claim that it is tantamount to marriage. The flea is their “marriage-bed” and “marriage-temple.” If she kills it, he claims, she will be destroying three lives–his, hers, and its–and committing three sins–murder, suicide, and sacrilege. The line “Though use [habit] makes you apt [habitually disposed] to kill me” indicates that the speaker has already attempted many times to seduce the young woman and has failed. He is metaphorically playing with the poetic lover’s traditional complaint that he is “dying” οf his unrequited love and therefore that the lady is “killing” him by withholding her favors.

But the young lady pays no attention to the speaker’s protest. Between the second and third stanzas she has cruelly (according to the young man) killed the flea–has “purpled [crimsoned]” her nail with “blood οf innocence.” The flea’s only guilt, the speaker claims, was contained in the drop οf blood it sucked from its murderess, and now she declares triumphantly to the young man that neither he nor she has been injured (let alone “killed”) by the flea’s death. With one quick stroke οf her finger she has indeed thoroughly discredited the young man’s “logic.” But the young man is not for a moment discountenanced. Nimbly, he turns his defeat into a further argument for his original design. Because his fears proved false, he contends, all fears are false, including hers that she will lose honor in yielding to him. She will lose no more honor in submitting to his desires, he claims, than she lost life in killing the flea.

This argument (a generalization from a single instance) is, οf course, as specious as those that have gone before, yet we have to admire the young man’s mental agility in turning the tables and putting the young woman on the defensive again.

What stage action follows the third stanza? On reviewing the critical literature, I was amazed to discover how many scholars and critics (some seven, in fact) have concluded that the young man’s plea is successful, and that the two young people immediately tumble into bed. One cannot be dogmatic about the conclusion, οf course, for the poem ends with the young man’s last speech. Yet there is evidence in the poem from which we may form a reasonable inference. That evidence favors the inference that this attempt on the young lady’s virginity is as unsuccessful as those that have preceded it.

What is that evidence? First, we know from lines 2, 9, 14, and 16 (we are given the information four times) that the young lady has previously denied the young man, and not just once but many times. “Use” (habit), the young man says, has made her “apt” (habitually disposed) to turn him down. (The meanings here provided for these words come from the O.E.D. and they are supported by the distance that the young man has traveled from the ordinary tactics οf seduction. Protestations οf adoration, lavish compliments to the lady’s charm and beauty, and pleas for pity are notably absent–presumably they have been tried and found unavailing: the young man has now turned to witty casuistry.) We know also on what grounds the young lady has turned him down. She would consider the loss οf her chastity a “sin” and a “shame” (line 6); she is concerned for her “honor”.

Both “The Apparition” and “The Flea” present an often-rejected lover taking a new and “far-out” approach to winning a woman’s favors. But in tone the two poems are radically different. In tone “The Apparition” is dark and menacing: “The Flea” is light and playful. The speaker in “The Apparition” attempts to attain his goal by threats, the speaker in “The Flea” by obviously specious reasoning. The speaker in “The Apparition” attempts to win his lady’s favors by maximizing her fears οf what will happen to her if she refuses. The speaker in “The Flea” attempts to win them by minimizing his lady’s fears οf what will happen if she consents. The methods used by the speaker in “The Apparition” are ingenious and sinister. The methods used by the speaker in “The Flea” are ingenious and witty.

Works Cited

  1. Blythe, Hal; Sweet, Charlie., Eliot’s THE LOVE SONG ΟF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK. Explicator, 2004, Vol. 62 Issue 2, p. 108-110
  2. Julius, Anthony. Love Poetry and the Art οf Advocacy. Critical Quarterly, 1997, Vol. 39 Issue 2, p. 1-3
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