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John Donne: "The Flea," "Valediction Forbidding Mourning," and Meditation 17

Vocabulary: Cavalier, homily, metaphysical conceit, metaphysical poets, neologism, roundhead, syncope.

Introduction: What is the contrast between John Donne's early years as a young man and his later years after marriage? What important religious office or job did John Donne hold later in life? What was Donne's religious background as a young man (i.e., what church was he a member of before he became an Anglican?) Why did this cause problems for him politically?

Lecture or Handouts: What is the significance of this phrase: "John Donne. Ann Donne. Undone "? What are some of the Renaissance puns for "death" or "to die" or le petite morte?

Identify the Following People
Ann More:

Explain the Significance of the Following Items in John Donne's Poetry and Prose:

A flea, a compass, a virtuous dying man, the quotation, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls" and "No man is an island."

Reading Questions:

  • "The Flea"
  • When the speaker says, "Mark but this flea," what is he asking his implied audience to do?
  • What has the flea done first to the speaker and then to the implied audience?
  • Why does the speaker say the flea's action is not "a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead"? What is maidenhead? Why might the flea's action be considered by some as a sin or shame or loss of maidenhead?
  • At the end of the first stanza, the speaker says, "And this, alas, is more than we would do." What do his words reveal about the speaker's relationship to the implied audience? Who or what is the implied audience and what does the speaker want from her?
  • In the second stanza, the speaker says, "Oh stay..." What is he asking the speaker to do?
  • What does the speaker mean when he says, "This flea is you and I."
  • How is the flea theoretically a marriage bed? A marriage temple?
  • What does the speaker mean by, "Though parents grudge"? What is it that the parents grudge about the relationship?
  • What is the pun in the question, "Though use make you apt to kill me"?
  • Why does the speaker say that killing the flea would be "self-murder" or suicide? Why does he say that killing the flea would be sacrilege? Why would murder, suicide and sacrilege be an even greater sacrilege on to of the previous list?
  • At the beginning of the third stanza, it seems that the implied audience has taken some sort of abrupt action. What has she done that the speaker calls "cruel and sudden"? When she has "purpled [her] nail in the blood of innocence," what innocent creature has she dispatched?
  • When the speaker says, "Yet thou triumph'st and say'st that thou / Find not thyself, nor me the weaker now," what does he mean? What is the woman's counter-argument to the speaker's claim that they have been married and have had sex in the stomach of the flea? How, in the final three lines, does the speaker take her counter-argument and twist it to his own advantage?
  • "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"
  • What is a valediction? (If you don't know, you should look it up in the dictionary.)
  • The first stanza begins with a simile. What is the connection the speaker makes between "virtuous men passing mildly away" and the way the speaker wants to say goodbye to his love?
  • Why would virtuous men "pass mildly away"? How do you suppose evil men pass away? As the hypothetical virtuous men described in the poem are dying, what is confusing or baffling the friends who watch his death?
  • The speaker wants the parting couple to "melt" and "make no noise." What does he want their parting to be like?
  • What's a tear-flood or a sigh-tempest? Why does the poet say in the accompanying stanza he doesn't want these things?
  • What is the "laity," according to a dictionary? Who are the "laity" probably in this poem?
  • What is the "moving of th'earth" that brings harms and fears? (Hint: California frequently suffers this tectonic phenomenon, as does Japan.)
  • What is that "far greater" trepidation of the spheres? (i.e., Although earthquakes are scary, how is the earth constantly moving although people don't normally sense it?) Why is the latter movement "innocent" in comparison to that earlier movement that causes harms and fears?
  • What does the word "sublunary" mean in the fourth stanza? How does this connect with the Renaissance idea of the Great Chain of Being? What is the contrast John Donne is making between "sublunary lover's love" and the "refined" or heavenly love between the speaker and the implied audience?
  • Why is it that sublunary lovers have a "dull" love in contrast with the heavenly love? Why can't sublunary lovers stand absence or being away from each other? Why is it that those with "refined" love don't care if they are separated physically from each other?
  • What quality about the couple's love prevents them from understanding what it is? (I.e., how does the fact their love is so pure make that love impossible to measure or analyze or understand?)
  • Donne makes up a neologism: he refers to being "inter-assurèd" of the mind. What do you suppose this word means? How is being inter-assurèd different than being self-assured or assured?
  • What is the paradox Donne makes in stanza six between the nature of the two (?) souls and the speaker's departure to a separate existence?
  • According to the speaker, the couple will "endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion, / Like gold to aery thinness beat." What does this mean? How is the way a goldsmith hammers gold flat into paper thin foil akin to the way their soul will behave as the two become physically farther and farther apart?
  • In stanza seven, the speaker abandons the metaphysical conceit of goldworking and turns to a different line of thought in which he compares a geometer's compass to the nature of their souls. Explain the metaphysical conceit of the compass and how each leg or foot corresponds to one lover in the relationship.
  • Which leg or foot of the compass is the male speaker? Which leg or foot of the compass is the female audience? Why is this appropriate for their situation? According to Donne, the further out he (or the mobile compass point) moves, the more it will do what?
  • What will the speaker (and his corresponding leg of the compass) do as he gradually approaches homeward? (i.e., how will his stance and bearing change the closer he comes to returning to his love?) I will leave you to figure out the sexual puns on your own in these lines.
  • What is it that "makes [his] circle just" or perfect? I.e., what force or thing ensures that the speaker will end his journey where he began--in his wife's arms?
  • Meditation 17:
  • What is the bell referred to in the opening lines? What does it signal?
  • Done points out that a very sick individual may be too sick to realize that the bell is tolling for him. He concludes that "perchance I may think myself so much beter than I am. . . they who are about me may have caused it to me toll for me, and I know not." What does he mean by this?
  • Why does John Donne say he should be concerned about each child's baptism and each parishioner's funeral in the church? Why does it affect him even if he doesn't know the child or the deceased parishioner?
  • What are some of the "translators" Donne says God employs as the author of humanity? What does he mean by this?
  • What does Donne mean when he says, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main"?
  • Why does Donne say Europe should be concerned if a single clod of land is washed away into the sea? How does that correspond to the way humanity should be concerned if a single person dies?
  • Why does Donne think that "Any man's death diminishes me"?
  • Why should a person never "send to know" (i.e. ask) for whom a funeral bell is tolling? What is the inevitable answer?
  • Explain the conceit about affliction or suffering being like buried gold inside a man's bowels. How does Donne suggest we can benefit from the suffering of others?

Identifications: Explain who the author is, what the work is, and what the significance is for each passage below:

A: No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

B: Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
    Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
    And makes me end where I begun. 

C: As virtuous men pass mildly away, 
    And whisper to their souls to go, 
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
    "Now his breath goes," and some say, "No." 
So let us melt, and make no noise,
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
'Twere profanation of our joys 
    To tell the laity our love. 

D: This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.

E: Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck'd 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 . . . .

F: Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
    Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
    Like gold to aery thinness beat. 



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