This funny little poem again exhibits Donne’s metaphysical love-poem mode, his aptitude for turning even the least likely images into elaborate symbols of love and romance. This poem uses the image of a flea that has just bitten the speaker and his beloved to sketch an amusing conflict over whether the two will engage in premarital sex. The speaker wants to, the beloved does not, and so the speaker, highly clever but grasping at straws, uses the flea, in whose body his blood mingles with his beloved’s, to show how innocuous such mingling can be—he reasons that if mingling in the flea is so innocuous, sexual mingling would be equally innocuous, for they are really the same thing. By the second stanza, the speaker is trying to save the flea’s life, holding it up as “our marriage bed and marriage temple.”
But when the beloved kills the flea despite the speaker’s protestations (and probably as a deliberate move to squash his argument, as well), he turns his argument on its head and claims that despite the high-minded and sacred ideals he has just been invoking, killing the flea did not really impugn his beloved’s honor—and despite the high-minded and sacred ideals she has invoked in refusing to sleep with him, doing so would not impugn her honor either. This poem is the cleverest of a long line of sixteenth-century love poems using the flea as an ****** image, a genre derived from an older poem of Ovid. Donne’s poise of hinting at the ****** without ever explicitly referring to sex, while at the same time leaving no doubt as to exactly what he means, is as much a source of the poem’s humor as the silly image of the flea is; the idea that being bitten by a flea would represent “sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead” gets the point across with a neat conciseness and clarity that Donne’s later religious lyrics never attained.