Although I love jokes, I can’t tell them; I’m the kind of person who sometimes refers to a joke by the punch line. I also love to read about topical jokes that no one gets anymore because no one remembers the references.
It’s unfortunate that the joke of one of the classic poems in English literature is based on one of these references—the 17th-century belief that blood mixed during sexual intercourse. (This was back in the days when people thought bleeding a patient with leeches would make him feel better.) That’s the first thing you’ve got to know about John Donne’s poem “The Flea.”
The second thing you need to know is that it’s a seduction poem. You are not in the land of symbolism here, folks. Picture a guy on a bar-stool leaning over to a woman sitting beside him.
The third, and last, thing is that you must picture what is happening between the two people in that bar as you read each stanza—stop after the first two lines of the next stanza and visualize what just happened in the pause.
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 mariage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re 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 honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
Isn’t it lovely how he will do anything to get this girl to yield her “honour” (her “maidenhead,” her virginity) including reversing his own argument?
Did you picture her after the first stanza, making a motion to crush the bug so she can crush his lame pick-up line?
And did you picture her between the second and third stanzas, having succeeded at crushing the bug with a fingernail?
So were you in the habit of visualizing the action enough to see that she is speaking in lines 23-24 (“say’st that thou/Find’st not thyself, nor me the weaker now”)? The joke of the last three lines is that instead of making a concession to her argument, as a 17th-century reader (trained in argumentation) would expect, he completely reverses himself. The speaker of this poem will do anything to get the girl.
It’s a funny poem, and once you enter into the logic of the argument, the 17th-century diction actually makes it funnier. At least I think so. Can you see the humor in it–or did I spoil that by belaboring the point?