John Donne was born in 1572 to catholic parents, converted to Anglicanism, married Anne More secretly and became Dean of St. Pauls at the age of 39. He is known as an erotically charged religious poet, whose sacred and profane poems seem equally passionate but he is also famous for his metaphysical poems. Metaphysical poetry typically had a special conceit, a metaphor like Donne’s metaphor of the compass and unites two usually opposing motives like sex and religion.
This brief introduction into the life of John Donne shows that he has a certain obsession towards both, religion and sex: as a man of the church he converted to Anglicanism and became Dean of St. Pauls, but as a lover of a woman he secretly married his beloved wife. Keeping these facts in mind I will exemplarily analyse two of Donne’s poems, namely The Flea and Elegy XX - To his Mistress going to bed to find out, whether sex and religion really are modifications of the same energy in Donne’s metaphysical poems.
The poem consists of 3 stanzas with 9 lines each and the meter alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is a rhyming couplet following the pattern AABBCCDDD, the final line rhymes with the final couplet.
The first hint on a common origin of sex and religion is the form of the poem. It has three stanzas but the rhyme scheme is a rhyming couplet (apart from the last line): three as an uneven number is a divine number representing the Trinity whereas two as an even number is a worldly number mirroring all profane, like Adam and Eve representing mankind. Nevertheless these modifications of the form derive from the same origin, the poem as a whole.
The three stanzas of the poem tell of a man and a woman that are both bitten by a flea. In the first stanza the flea bites the speaker first and is about to bite the woman. By doing this the flea unites their bloods in its body. In Renaissance times exchanging fluids was thought to happen when two people were having sexual intercourse. Therefore it is obvious that the bite that is declared as neither “A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead” (l. 6) by the speaker is an attempt to persuade the woman to have sexual intercourse with the man, what neither is “A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead”.
In the second stanza the speaker does not speak of the blood of both of them anymore but of “three lives in one flea spare” (l. 10) namely the woman’s life, his own life and the flea’s life, their “marriage bed” (l. 13). This is a hint on the Trinity again. By declaring that the uniting of their bloods means even more than a marriage (“Where we almost, yea, more than married are” (l. 11)) shows a divine justification for their unification. While in the first stanza pure lust and desire were the man’s motivation to persuade the woman, we find a religious validation for this in the second stanza: the comparison of their unification to the holy sacrament of marriage. Again, both streams have the same origin, namely the desire to love.
When the speaker declares in the final triplet of the second stanza that his beloved should not kill the flea because she would commit a triple sin in killing the flea (murder, suicide and annihilation of the sacrament of marriage), he again refers to the holiness of their unification that actually is a sin itself, namely the sin of pre-marital sex. In the third stanza the speaker calls his lover "Cruel and sudden," (l. 19) because she has – although he begged her to spare the flea’s life – finally killed the flea and has now "purpled [her fingernail] in blood of innocence" (l. 20). The speaker asks his beloved for the flea’s sin, other than having sucked a drop of blood from him and her. The reply the woman gives him is that neither of them is less noble for having killed the flea. He admits the truth of this statement but nevertheless declares that this fact is the reason why her fears of sleeping with him were unnecessary: if she had agreed on having sexual intercourse with him she would not have lost more honour than in murdering the flea and committing the three sins; in other words it would have been as easy and harmless to sleep with him as it was to kill the flea.
In this last stanza both spheres are mingled together just like the blood mingled in the flea. The speaker acknowledges his real aim, to have sexual intercourse with his beloved and solves the story around the flea himself. Finally the pun of “death” (l. 27) in the last line of the poem where the speaker refers to the flea’s death shows the connection between religion and sexuality: an orgasm was described as dying the gentle way in the seventeenth century and which death could be gentler than through the beloved’s hands?
While we find a lot of hints on sexuality in a poem that seems to deal with nothing more than a flea at first sight, the question is what we find when we have a look at a poem that actually is a love poem. Elegy XX – To his mistress going to bed leaves no doubt at its aim: it is an instruction for a woman to strip. Surprisingly we find a lot of religious language in this poem. Thus the question comes up whether sex and religion derive from the same energy in this poem as well.
 Both poems attached in the Appendix and found in: Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed.London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896.
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- John Donne The Flea Elegy XX To His Mistress going to Bed Elizabethan Poetry Renaissance Renaissance Poem Poetry Analysis