An Erotic Marriage Argument: A Discussion of John Donnes The Flea
A discussion of the John Donne poem The Flea in reference to the relation between the erotic and religious language found throughout, finds relevance in almost every line of the poem. The two seemingly opposite ideas exist in a congruent fashion without compromising the positions the entities stand upon. Although Donnes agenda when composing The Flea is not certain, the tone and the subject of his other work give the reader a good impression as to the poetrys meaning. However, when examining poetry ones ultimate interpretation develops from a singular experience, without the aid of other works of the author to use in reference to that which is interpreted. Donnes use of double meanings in the language of the poem result in a reading where two ideas come together in interpretation
Donne, in The Flea uses erotic, as well as religious language in order to communicate his thoughts concerning the relationship between marriage and love making. Lines such as Me it sucked first, and now it sucks thee(3), used in opposition to Our marriage bed and marriage temple is(13) convey the complex theme Donne inserts in the poem. What is Donnes purpose when using the conflicting language? Donnes work is studied as such containing satire. If the reader views The Flea as completely satirical, one comes to an interpretation containing validity, however simple in nature. The explanation appears logical. Donne, by inserting language into The Flea that creates opposition infers his thought upon the absurd nature with which the virtues of marriage, and the erotic inclinations of love making stand in juxtaposition. The argument could logically end there; however, Donne, instead of the bleak view seems to aspire to address something akin to the argument, but perhaps an argument which is further evolved. Donne in The Flea uses language possessing a double meaning of erotic and religious nature. Through the double meanings Donne brings the separate ideas of religion and eroticism into one argument against the religious institutions of marriage.
To examine the language a close reading must be done to find conclusions on the effect of the erotic tone in The Flea. Our two bloods mingled(4), loss of maidenhead(6),and swells with one blood(8) could all be interpreted as language containing erotic innuendos. All three examples here are found in the first stanza. The tone turns in the second stanza where Donnes language leaves the more erotic tone and concentrates on religious ideas surrounding marriage. While no portion of the poem could be categorized as having an uplifting feeling, the second stanza fills itself with dreary affirmations of marriages artificial hold placed on the people involved.
The language chosen communicates the speakers thoughts on marriage in relation to religion. Donne uses the word temple to complete the second line of the stanza, representing the unfailing structure of marriage (13). The temple, read with religious connotations could only speak to the permanence of Gods temple translated to the situation the two who are nay more than married find themselves (11). The poem furthers the idea when the restraints of marriage are characterized as these living walls of jet or black (15). Black walls encompassing the man and woman into relation only with themselves. The overbearing appearance of the marriage in the second stanza leads the reader toward a dismal interpretation.
The second stanza ends with a discussion of one party taking the life of the other, and conveys that with the death of the one person all three, including the flea, will perish with them. The final line of the stanza, And sacrilege, three sins in killing three, complicates the language when referring to the desired murder of one party in the marriage (18). The word sacrilege infers a religious theme, while the speaker addresses the notion that with the marriage union the two parties have created a third entity. The third and new entity, created by the union exists as a result of the marriage and shares its fate. The third stanza of The Flea continues to place the forces of religious and erotic language in opposition. For example, the passage Purpled thy nail in the blood of innocence looked at in relation to Christianity conveys thoughts of Jesus crucifixion (20). However, if a more sexual interpretation is taken the passage communicates the image of a woman losing her virginity. Neither of the interpretations are dismissible, therefore both deserve equal consideration.
The discussion returns to the relation of religious and erotic language in reference to marriage. What was Donnes purpose when intertwining the themes? The reflective, dismal tone of The Flea leads the reader to understand the speakers contempt for marriages ramifications upon the people in the relationship. While the tone contains an antithesis toward the purposes behind marriage, the language suggests erotic notions also accompany marriage institutions. Whether Donne was purposeful in the use of the erotic in relation to the religious is irrelevant. The ease with which the lines are converted from religious to erotic and back, intended or not, leave readers with no choice but to consider both interpretations and how they relate.
The relationship, for the purpose it serves in The Flea, suggests a commentary on what the speaker views as the trap of conventional marriage. Although the poem argues for a rethinking on marriage, the language does not suggest that marriage is something society should disregard. Instead, the poem insists a more realistic take on marriage, and what it means to the man and woman. A reading taken from the reform stance on marriage changes the message a reader experiences. Instead of a complete dismal view Donne uses satire in line twenty-six to advocate change in the relation between the sexes in marriage. Just so much honor, when thou yieldst to me. The speaker, in reference to the surrounding context, condemns the act of the woman being forced to yield, arguing for more equal stances.
The question then arises as to what purpose the erotic language holds for a reading concerning marriage conventions. Although the entire poem contains erotic notions, the purpose of the language appears less to advocate eroticism, and more to use erotic language in opposition to the religious connotations concerning marriage. Marriage in the Christian church is a sacred institution, one where tradition forces submission on the woman. The erotic undertones, in The Flea present themselves without perversion, but instead as a stance against the churches expectations as to what marriage should be. Therefore, the speaker communicates a negative stance, not against marriage in theory but the restraints the marriage of the Christian church imposes. The imposition of restraints, for Donne, causes the corruption he finds in marriage. The walls of jet created by the people in the marriage, only serve as a poor reflection upon the institution. Marriage, without the constraints placed upon it by the church would return to a theoretical purity which the poem feels is lost to the experience.
The presence of eroticism, leads the reader toward a more realistic conjuncture with marriage and what it means to those involved. While suggesting such ideas as Christs crucifixion, and a woman loosing her virginity in the same sentence Donne attempts to convey the purity lost to religious ideals. Jesus crucifixion used in comparison to the love making and marriage reflects notions of a purity that is defiled. The same purity, for Donne, which marriage holds in its purest sense. To state Donne argues for love in marriage would overstate the intention. However, the poem insists that the restrictions placed upon those in the marriage, especially the woman, have grave consequences.
Poetry written for whatever purpose results in numerous interpretations of the authors intention upon composition. Consequently, each reader who encounters a poem interprets the piece in a different fashion. In reference to The Flea numerous readings exist as to the interpretation of the poem. Donnes use of erotic and religious language to explicate a bleak assessment of the relation of marriage and religious conventions causes the reader to undertake separate readings and combine them to constitute a single idea. The question still arises as to if erotic and religious language work individually, in conjunction, or in opposition. The individual reader must decide for themselves. To conclude, the individual interpretations readers of poetry contribute to discussion surrounding a piece create various avenues with which to interpret a poem. The Flea could hold interpretations absent of a religious or erotic theme. However, the repetitive use of erotic and religious words in the poem force the reader to consider the argument in any interpretation.