History has blessed the English language with many great romanticists; they were men and sometimes woman who had an affinity for describing the glories of love. Yet in the midst of such uninhibited amorousness, they were a select few who chose to write about the seamier side of romance. It was these works which perhaps best represented the complexities of the male-female relationships of the time. Although written more than two hundred years apart, both “The Flea” by John Donne and “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, examine the selfishness and lustful ambitions which often hamper a man’s ability to achieve true love.
As the reader is introduced to the protagonist of John Donne’s “The Flea”, it becomes clear that his only romantic tendencies are fueled from below the beltline. Lines such as “It sucked me first, and now it sucks thee, and in this flea, our two bloods mingled be” (3-4) sound more like the plot to a 1950’s horror movie, then a testament to true love. The narrator reasoning for writing this poem is to convince the female object of his admiration that since there blood is mixed inside of a flea, it would not be a sin to mix other more sexual fluids. It is quite possible that the protagonist of the “The Flea” was one of the inventors of the cheesy pick-up line.
Much like the Narrator in “The Flea”, The Duke from Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is a man whose love is hardly pure because it is fueled mostly by greed and shallowness. As the Duke marvels over the painting of his late wife on the wall, he seems to be more impressed with the artistry of the painter, then with celebrating the memory of the woman who was once his bride. “That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands worked busily a day, and there she stands” (3-4). The Duke seems almost as happy with a painting, as he was with a living breathing wife, because the painting represents all he found attractive about his wife, and nothing he did not. The Duke only speaks positively of his late wife’s physical attributes, and discusses her personality in a manner which seems to suggest it contributed to her premature demise.
It is doubtful that the protagonist in John Donne’s “The Flea” was as well acquainted with the object of his affection as his counterpart found in “My Last Duchess”. Very little is known about the relationship the narrator has with the woman he is addressing, and the tone of the protagonist’s lecherous desperation seems to suggest that he has have never made love with the woman he his addressing. As the line “And pampered swells with one blood made of two” (8) it becomes apparent that the flea’s body isn’t the only thing which is swelling up, as the narrator ponders the possibility of bodily fluids mixing. The protagonist seems to prey upon stereotypical female romantic fantasies of perfect marital bliss as he manages to fit the subject of marriage into his hormone induced rant. “This flea is you and I, and this our marriage bed, and marriage temple is” (12-13). The grace in which this rather forced imagery is carried out, is akin to the artistry found when a dog dances on all fours.
As “My Last Duchess” progresses it appears that matters were much more life threatening than a simple sexual solicitation. The painting of his wife, begins to remind the Duke of what he thought were his young bride’s less commendable qualities. The Duke was clearly upset about the way his wife interacted with other men, and this personality trait led to much jealously. “She had a heart- How shall I say?- Too soon made glad, Too easily impressed; She liked whateér she looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (21-24). As the lines are uttered, it becomes more apparent that perhaps the Duke’s jealously had something to do with his wife’s premature demise, he didn’t want anything which another man was able to have. The line “How shall I say?” also seems to suggest that the Duke is searching for words which might lead to less suspicion on his part.
The narrator of John Donne’s “The Flea” completes his rather unconventional pitch for sexual gratification by suggesting that making love with him, will do no more harm then a flea’s bite. “Yet thou triumph’st and say’st that thou find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;” (23-24). The narrator seems to take a similar approach to wooing his subject, that the serpent in the Garden of Eden took when trying to encourage Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. The way in which the Narrator constructs his speech, seems to suggest that he believes the woman he is addressing is a virgin, as he downplays sex to a point where he makes it seems like it will be little more than a minor nuisance for her. The protagonist never once speaks of lovemaking in a way in which would make it seem the least bit pleasurable to the female. This highlights the true selfishness of the narrator who cares little about the woman he is addressing, because she is nothing more than a set of sexual organs to him.
As the Duke’s monologue comes to a close, he goes into more depth about his disgust for his late wife’s lack of respect for him. “Oh sir, she smiled no doubt, whene’er I passed her, but who passed her without much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands, then all smiles stopped together” (43-46). At this point the Duke stops talking about his former wife and begins discussions regarding his upcoming second marriage. These rather abrupt change of conversation, suggests that something happened after the Duchess stopped smiling for her husband, which the Duke doesn’t wish to talk about, most probably her murder. This is one advantage the Duke has over the narrator of “The Flea”; he knows when to shut his mouth.
When reading both “The Flea” and “My Last Duchess” in an isolated context, the two male Protagonists seem to paint their entire gender with a less than favourable brush. Both these poems exist most effectively when contrasted with a broader range of writings from their respective time periods, which represent both admirable and despicable members of the male race.