John Donne – “The Flea”, “The Good-Morrow”, Song (“Go and Catch a Flying Star…”

After taking a few days off to read the general introduction to the seventeenth century, today I start reading John Donne. I find it very difficult to discuss “The Flea” since I read it just a few weeks ago with my students and I think I don’t have a chance to say anything new on the subject. “The Flea” is a poem attempting to seduce the woman through the fairly shocking medium of discussing the flea which has just bitten both the poet and his would-be lover. (There was a fairly popular late medievalLatin  poem, ascribed erroneously to Ovid, about the man envying a flea the freedom it can take with girls’ bodies, so it could be an influence.) The flea sucked your blood and it’s not a big loss, so why won’t you go to bed with me? Don’t kill the flea, because it’s going to be three sins in one – murder, suicide and sacrilege – the flea, by sucking the bloods of us two, became our marriage temple. You killed the flea and you say you don’t feel any weaker? Well then, your loss of virginity will be as immaterial as killing the flea – why won’t you go to bed with me?

“The Good-Morrow” is Donne in his lyrical mood as a tender lover. He compares the existence of him and his lover before and after they met. Before they were in love, they were like breast-fed children, not realizing the full spectrum of taste, or like seven sleeping brothers from the Christian legend, snoring in a cave. If the poet had any loves before that, they were like a dream. Now their souls wake up and for each of them the other one is like the whole world – they feel no need to be like the contemporary discoverers of the new worlds. Scholars in Donne’s times believed that if elements in the matter were not mixed equally, the matter would perish, but if they were mixed in perfect harmony, the matter would be eternal. And these two lovers love each other so perfectly and equally, their love can never die.

“Go and Catch a Falling Star” is Donne again in a cynical mood. The poem is structured around a series of blatantly impossible tasks, starting with the incipit line. Catching a falling star, hearing mermaids sing – if you can do it, you can also “find/what wind/serves to advance an honest mind”. In the following stanzas, the theme switches from the problem of honest living in general to the problem of finding an honest and beautiful woman in particular. “If you find her, let me know”, the poet says, “I’d love to see her, but on second thoughts, I won’t bother. Even if she is virtuous at the moment of your meeting her, she won’t be such when I get there, even if I could reach her in one-two-three”.  I’ve read some interpretations which read this poem as addressed to a woman, but I thought about this poem as rather addressed to a man. Initially I imagined the addressee to be a younger, naive man, addressed by an older libertine. But now I rather wonder if the poem is not a kind of underhanded compliment to the seduction abilities of the addressee “She won’r stay virtuous long when you find her, you stud!”

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