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Ramifications of Key Words

In John Donne’s “Flea” words have been chosen carefully to persuade his lady to think logically and requite his love with a warm intimacy. For a better understanding of the poem I have focused on a few significant words which hold the key to its theme. My favorite words are – “maidenhead”, “sacrilege” and “ honor”. They vindicate Donne’s view that for true lovers the loss of virginity is a virtue rather than a sin to be feared and avoided at all costs. He refutes the conventional view that intimacy between lovers is sinful.

In support of his view he cites the examples of the “flea” which sucks both the lovers’ blood which mingles in its body and thereby acts as a true facilitator in a marriage. For rendering this valuable service it would be a great offence to kill such a benevolent creature. Finally, those who believe in carpe diem (enjoy the present and don’t bother too much about the future) must consider it a privilege to yield to the temptations of the flesh.

The word “flea” is defined by O. E. D as “A small wingless insect (or genus of insects, Pulex, the common flea being P.  irritans), well known for its biting propensities and its agility in leaping; it feeds on the blood of man and of some other animals. ” The etymological and historical ramifications of my chosen key words are discussed below: The lover in the poem persuades his coy mistress to give up her obsession with “maidenhead” — better expressed in the modern times as “maidenhood”. He argues in line 6 that a flea’s sucking of the lover’s blood cannot be called “A sinne, nor shame, nor losse of maidenhead,” (Honig. 64). The word also suggests the hymen or the vagina which is considered as the mark of a woman’s chastity.

Shakespeare used it in 1597 in Romeo & Juliet (1. 1. 24) “Off with their heads. / The heads of the maids? 1 I the heades of their Maides, or the maidenheades. ” In the twentieth century we have a clinical definition in F. W. S. Browne translated . T. H. van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage (2. 4. 57): “Within this space is the sexual orifice… In maidens this is closed by the hymen.. or virginal membrane, popularly called ‘maidenhead’. ” In 1972 the same idea is reinforced in G. Greene’s Dr. Crombie in Collected Stories (133): “A lady may have had prolonged sexual relations…without injuring the maidenhead.

” (oed) Donne would have warmly welcome the invention of contraceptives which takes away the fear from intimate relationship. The second key word “sacrilege” appears in line 19: “A sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three. ” (Honig. 64) which equates the killing of the flea with self-annihilation or suicide. Sacrilege means: “The crime or sin of stealing or misappropriating what is consecrated to God’s service. In ecclesiastical use, extended to include any kind of outrage on consecrated persons or things, and the violation of any obligation having a sacramental character, or recognized as under the special protection of the Church.

Also, an instance of this offence. ” Etymologically, it is derived from French sacri-, sacer sacred + -leg-, leg re to gather, after the phrase sacrum or sacra legere to purloin sacred objects. (oed) Donne used this religious word wittily to indicate that since the flea becomes a conduit for mixing of the lovers’ blood, it is actually performing the role of a priest in marriage. Therefore it would be a heinous crime to kill such a benevolent facilitator. He argues if lovers’ blood can mix without offence in a flea’s body, why should a lady hesitate to allow it to happen it directly and enjoy the pleasures of senses?

Donne’s ideas are very modern and therefore far ahead of his time. In the twenty-first century the idea of enjoyment of sex without any feeling of guilt is even widespread among school boys and girls. There is, of course, secular use of the word in 1874 cited by O. E. D from J. T. Micklethwaite’s Mod. Par. Churches (204): “Almost every stone.. is a historical monument, which it would be sacrilege to remove or destroy. ” (oed) Donne has, of course, used the british spelling “honour”. The word “honor” appears in the penultimate line of the poem: “Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee. ”

(Honig. 65) which encourages the lady to be seduced without the prick of conscience. There is no dissimulation in Donne’s philosophy of hedonism – the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the highest goal in human life. A great philosopher of twentieth century, Bertrand Russell, also subscribes to this view. The word “honor” has an interesting history; it is derived from Old French. onor, and modern French honneur which stands for “high respect, esteem, or reverence, accorded to exalted worth or rank; deferential admiration or approbation. ” (oed) Here the lover implores his love lady that fear of losing her virginity is baseless.

Two nineteenth century quotations reinforce this exaggerated view. In Coleridge’s Friend (1837) we read: “Honor implies a reverence for the invisible and super-sensual in our nature. ” (III. 76) and Ruskin writes in Political Economy, Art 2: “True wealth I hold in great honour. ” So the lover argues that sexual experience is likely to make her more mature, dignified and self-confident. But we have here an avant-garde view of sexuality from a poet of the seventeenth century England. Though there are other important words in the poem which have profound significance, the three words I have chosen hold the essential key to the theme.

Donne has used his dialectic to persuade the lover that her loss of maidenhead would not be a significant loss; on the contrary, it would ensure gain of honor. And the murder of a benefactor like the “flea” is really an act of ingratitude – more sinful than the loss of virginity. Work Cited Online Oxford English Dictionary. www. oed. com (All word meanings and citations are from this edition. ) Honig, Edwin and Williams, Oscar (eds) The Major Metaphysical Poets of the Seventeenth Century. N. York. W. Square Press. 1969 http://journal. entsoc. org/pubs/periodicals/ae/ae-02/summer/Musings. pdf. dt. 24. 2. 08 February 27, 2008

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