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Themes Of Love In John Donne's The Flea And To His Mistress Going To Bed

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Within John Donne’s love poems there are many unique ideas of love presented, his attitudes towards love are contrasting as love is presented as more physical rather than emotional. Donne’s presentation of physical love can be viewed as an attempt to glorify it. John Donne’s ‘the flea’ and ‘to his mistress going to bed’ could be seen as attempts to glorify physical love, and rejecting society’s typical view of love at the time, along with equating physical love to spiritual love by transforming its physicality into a celebration of the holy union between souls and god.

Within each ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ John Donne glorifies physical love. In “The Flea,” the narrator tries to seduce the woman inside the poem with a surprising, and potentially gross, extended metaphor: each the narrator and the woman have been bitten by the same flea, which means their separate blood now mingles inside the flea’s body. In the first stanza, the narrator explains to the woman that after the flea has sucked each of their blood, the two of them already grow to be one thru their blood mingling in the flea’s body, as a result, if they had been to have sex it wouldn’t be “.A sin” and wouldn’t cause “shame, nor loss of maidenhead” because they have already technically done what, in Donne’s eyes, equates to having sex. Back in the seventeenth century, it was believed that during sex the participants’ blood would mingle so Donne’s metaphor isn’t so far fetched. Later in stanza three, after the woman has killed the flea in spite of the objection of the narrator, Donne describes the woman’s concern for her loss of chastity as “false fears” due to the fact that having sex with him should be no simpler than really killing a flea. However, back in Donne’s time, sex before marriage used to be considered a sin and a very big deal, and if it were found out by society, a woman could be shunned and it would make it hard for them to find a husband.

In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, not only is physical love as shameless, but it is also glorified as an exciting and happy adventure.“To His Mistress Going to Bed” is a poem of seduction. within the poem, the narrator tries to persuade the woman presented to undress, get in bed, and have sex with him. The poem unfolds as the narrator of the poem attempts to persuade this woman to undress by means of grooming her, using pretty language blended in with crude remarks, it can additionally be viewed as the woman undressing throughout the poem. If the poem is taken as the woman is undressing throughout it seems that the narrator, Donne, appears to be enjoying it, as he claims that “All joys are due to thee, As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be, To taste whole joys.’ and hence “full nakedness!’ is what brings him joys. The speaker additionally deems that the woman’s body an unexplored land that is ready to be conquered, as he describes her body as ‘O my America! my new-found-land’ and whilst exploring it states “My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d”, this could be viewed as Donne objectifying this woman. ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ therefore also celebrates physical love, much like ‘the flea’.

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Donne’s glorifying of physical love consequently rejects and challenges the Petrarchan notion of love. In Petrarchan poetry, the mistresses are commonly chaste and remote whilst the male lovers would be continuously devotional yet eventually suffering from unrequited love. In ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, however, Donne creates an entirely distinctive scene with the idea of a courtly love being non-existent. In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, the woman is far from being remote to the male lover, as she has a physical presence in the poem, which is in the bedroom with the narrator. In ‘the flea’, unlike how the male lovers would normally try to win over the women with beautiful and unrealistic languages in the Petrarchan love poetry, in ‘The Flea’ the speaker uses unromantic imagery of a parasite, the flea as the metaphor for his intimate relationship with the woman, in order to persuade her to have sex with him. Most importantly, both ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ stress on the immediate physical satisfaction which is a direct opposite to the chastity spirit of the Petrarchan world.

Apart from glorifying the physical nature of love and as a result breaking the Petrarchan traditional idea of love, in ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, Donne additionally equates the physical love with the spiritual love by means of transforming the mere physical union into a more holy union between the body and the soul, and even between the soul and God. In ‘The Flea’, the flea becomes the representation of the sacred and holy religious ritual of marriage between the speaker and the woman as he claims to her that “This flea is you and I, and this Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is’. The blood that the flea carries in its body not only represents the essence of life, but it additionally symbolizes unique aspects of life, from the physical passion to the religious devotion. In the second stanza, the ‘three lives in one flea spare” additionally refers to the flea as a sacred ideal of the holy trinity of the Bible. The many religious metaphors presented in ‘The Flea’ therefore, can be viewed as an indication of Donne’s belief that the physical union with women can also bring them closer to the union with God.

Such a connection between physical love and religious love can additionally be reflected in Donne’s adaptation of the Neoplatonic concept of love in ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’. The Neoplatonic idea of love treats physical love as the lowest rung of the ladder. Once there is the appearance of physical love, it can then pass onto the higher rungs of the ladder and eventually progress as the love for God and for spiritual beauty. In ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’, the speaker suggests in “As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be’ that the spiritual connection of two souls outside the body is crucial. The narrator compares the woman in the poem with an angel, as in ‘In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise’. Angel symbolizes the divine mediate between human beings and God, and therefore here in the poem the speaker believes that his love for her, physical or not, can help bring them nearer to God.

Despite Donne’s many changing views of love, ‘The Flea’ and ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ share a lot of similarities. In both poems, Donne glorifies the physical nature of love, suggesting that it is worthy of celebration. Such glorifying of the physical love then, in turn, rejects and challenges the traditional Petrarchan thinking of courtly love and its spirits of chastity. Finally, in both poems, Donne additionally equates physical love with spiritual love, transforming the physical union into the holy union between souls and God.

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Themes Of Love In John Donne’s The Flea And To His Mistress Going To Bed. (2021, October 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/themes-of-love-in-john-donnes-the-flea-and-to-his-mistress-going-to-bed/
“Themes Of Love In John Donne’s The Flea And To His Mistress Going To Bed.” Edubirdie, 01 Oct. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/themes-of-love-in-john-donnes-the-flea-and-to-his-mistress-going-to-bed/
Themes Of Love In John Donne’s The Flea And To His Mistress Going To Bed. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/themes-of-love-in-john-donnes-the-flea-and-to-his-mistress-going-to-bed/> [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].
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