Comparison of Donne's 'The Flea' and Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress'

Categories: John Donne

Andrew Marvell and John Donne were two prominent members of the metaphysical movement and they wrote the poems "To His Coy Mistress" and "The Flea" respectively. The two poems are based on the idea of seduction and both express their different views making the poems contrasting to one another. John Donne's and Andrew Marvell's poems both use their metaphysical views to mock the concept of courtly love. Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" describes the poet's impatient desire for furthering his relationship with his "coy mistress.

" Marvell is adamant in his persuasion, using the conceit of time and progression to seduce and persuade his reluctant mistress. John Donne's "The Flea" is a first person narrative and a direct address to a woman where the poet concentrates on one metaphor; the flea. He uses the flea as an argument to persuade his mistress, explaining how the flea has bitten both of them and now has their "bloods mingled" inside, using this as a reason for them to engage in sex.

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The layout of each poem is definitely significant. Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is a first person narrative, addressing his love to his mistress directly. It is structured in three stanzas, each showing constant progression and containing an octosyllabic rhyme scheme of AABB rhyming couplets. These in turn set a fast pace to the poem. Furthermore, Marvell's elaborate ideas are used in conjunction with the rhyming couplets in order to confuse and rush his mistress into a decision; "For, Lady, you deserve this State, Now would I love at lower rate.

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" This structure is similar to that of Donne's poem "The Flea" which is also structured as three stanzas each showing progression. However, each stanza contains nine lines comparing to Marvell's having no significant structure in terms of the number of lines. Donne uses these stanzas in conjunction with a rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD. Rhyming couplets are used similarly to Marvell to create a faster pace to the poem; "'in what could this flea guilty be, except in that drop which it sucked from thee?" However, each stanza includes rhyming triplets in the last three lines unlike the other two poems; "...fears be, yield'st to me, life from me."

The three stanzas in each poem show a progression of thought or action. Many interesting images are depicted Andrew Marvell's poem and these are coupled with the effective language utilised. The first stanza of Marvell's poem begins by describing the beauty of his mistress, contemplating her and suggesting that the "coyness" of hers would be no crime if they had all the time in the world; "Had we but World enough, and Time, This coyness, Lady, were no crime." However, he argues that time is running out and proceeds to outline what he would do out of love for his mistress if they were both much longer-lived, mentioning such lengths of time as centuries and ages. This is evident in the line; "Love you ten years before the Flood". This and other hyperboles that he uses such as; "an hundred years," "two hundred," and "thirty thousand," enables him to exaggerate his feelings and emotions.

Marvell also uses effective imagery to describe the exotic places his mistress could visit and he has her imagination wandering to the "Indian Ganges" and "The Tide of Humber." Marvell goes on to say that he would not love his mistress any less if they did have more time. In this very line hyperbolic language and a blazon is used when Marvell is praising his reluctant girlfriend; "For, lady, you deserve this state, nor would I love at lower rate." Other techniques include the alliteration of "long love" and the metaphor of "vegetable love" which is used to portray the fact he has no control of his love. These help the rhythm of the poem to flow more smoothly and expand the meaning along with clarifying his feelings and emotions that he has for his mistress

In the second stanza, Marvell continues his story of progression by explaining how he and his mistress do not have all the time in the world. He uses the personification of time cleverly in the line; "Time's winged Chariot hurrying near," to express his view and to depict the image of time as being powerful and running out. He describes the "deserts of vast Eternity" to portray an eternal emptiness. The line "No more in thy marble vault shall sound my echoing song," is used to say that the words he is saying will not be heard when they are both dead. This is further evident when Marvell uses a phallic symbol in the line "...then worms shall try that long preserved virginity." Here he is saying that while they are young they should make love to one another since he believes that she will lose her virginity once she is dead owing to the worms ["trying her]...long preserved virginity." Furthering this idea of them wasting time, Marvell says that her virginity will "turn to dust". In other words, he is saying what a waste of time it is, holding her "quaint honour". This helps to convince his mistress that coyness is folly and playing games is a waste of time.

In the third stanza, Marvell presents his final argument, reminiscent of a conclusion, where he expresses his thoughts of what they should do. It is here that the poem moves from the use of "I", "me" and "you" and switches to the use of "we" and "us." In this stanza, Marvell believes that the two should consume time rather than allow time to take over them. This is evident in the lines; "Rather at once our time devour, than languish in his slow-chapt power." He uses words such as "youthful hue" to describe that while she is young they should engage in sex and have fun. Marvell uses a strong simile when he says "sport amorous birds of prey," showing his affection for his mistress and how he compares her to some of the most impressive birds to exist. He asks her to engage in sex with him before time runs out and compares himself to "strength" and her to "sweetness." Marvell concludes with the use of personification in the line "...we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run." This line also concludes his feelings and his solution to his argument as he believes that even though they cannot stop time, they should still make use of it by having fun and enjoying themselves.

John Donne's "The Flea," similarly to Marvell's poem, shows a progression of persistency in each of the three stanzas. The first stanza of Donne's poem begins by Donne telling the woman to notice the flea; "Mark but this flea, and mark in this." In the next few lines, Donne conveys the thought of the woman's virginity being as significant as the flea; "How little that which thou deny'st me is; me it sucked first, and now sucks thee." Here he is referring to the flea bites. Donne describes the union of himself and the woman since the flea has "our two bloods mingled." The use of this extended metaphor is Donne's way of saying that now that the flea has both their bloods "mingled" they should have sex. He tells her to "confess it" referring to the fact that he feels she knows that they should be together now. He then continues to say that now the blood has already mingled, and this flea has sucked it from both, it would not be considered dishonourable; "this cannot be said. A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead." The fragile representation of the flea could also represent the fragile argument of sex and symbolises that it is unimportant. Donne tries to achieve the lady loosing her "maidenhead" to him. He does this by forcefully conveying his argument - that sex is unimportant. Donne uses simple and easy language proving that he speaks to the lady on the same level and there is no hierarchy.

In the next stanza, Donne is adamant for the flea to remain on the woman's arm, alive, because it is a representation of the man and the woman coming together, as evident by the line "this flea is you and I." Donne is afraid that the woman will kill the flea, signifying the fact that she is rejecting him; "Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare." Donne portrays the image of marriage with the use of repetition of the word "marriage." This repetition has the effects of a strong argument and the repetition of this key word conveys his feelings which he wants the woman to hear. Furthermore it conveys the flea as being the equivalent of them being married. He uses religious imagery in an attempt to seduce her into a spiritual love with him; "our marriage bed, and marriage temple." Donne continues by saying although their "parents grudge," they are still "cloistered" (another religious reference) inside the "living walls of jet" which is the flea. Donne uses further strong religious words such as "sacrilege" and "sins" to explain to the woman that if she kills the flea she is in fact killing herself.

In the third and final stanza, the woman does kill the flea as evident by the harsh words used in the first line; "cruel and sudden." Donne uses the words "blood of innocence" and "what could this flea guilty be" as a way of expressing his feelings of the flea's innocence and the fact that it did not deserve to die. Donne makes her feel guilty over her actions by stating that the flea was guilty of nothing but the "drop" of blood it sucked from her. Yet she feels that she has triumphed over the fear of killing this flea does not feel as though she has just killed a part of herself; "Find'st not thyself, nor me the weaker now." At this point the poet uses this to strengthen his argument with a strong twist at the end of the poem. This further suggests he was caring about the flea just to make the woman feel guilty and so is another light-hearted idea from Donne for amusement.

He uses a rhyming triplet at the end of the stanza and by doing this Donne conveys the thought of a final plea to the woman to give in to him; "yield'st to me." He furthers this by explaining that the woman would not lose anything through having sex with him and she would lose just as much as being bitten by the flea; "will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee." The use of imperative is used throughout the poem, such as "Mark but this flea". The use of imperative makes it stand out and to make the woman take notice. The language used in The Flea is very simplistic and monosyllabic which means that it is trying to suggest that sex is unimportant, in contrast to Marvell's poem, where exaggerated verbs and metaphors are used to convey his ideas.

There is undoubtedly progression evident in both poems and their three stanzas which is something that is similar. However, the tone of the poems contrasts. Marvell's poem has an undeniable tone of frustration and longing for love. This is further contrasting to that of Donne's poem in which a mischievous tone is evident. Marvell's poem expresses many sentiments; "carpe diem" ("seize the day") and "tempus edax" ("time the devourer,") both of which are clearly evident in the poem. This is in contrast to the other two poems where no real sentiments are evident.

Although the poet's share a similar view of sexuality, Marvell's attitude is one of trying to seduce woman and will not stop until he does because of his frustration. He feels that they should not waste time, and that they should have sex now while they are young and beautiful. This is similar to that of Donne, as he is also of the belief that his mistress should have sex with him now because in his case, a flea has their bloods mingled.

In general, the poems are similar because they both detail the theme of seduction. Both have similar tones and moods and are even more similar in the way they are structured. The three stanzas of each poem all show progression of feelings and stages of seduction. Another similarity is that both poets use many poetic techniques such as metaphors, similes and personification.

The structure of Marvell's poem is slightly different in that it does not have a fixed amount of lines per stanza unlike the other two poets. Marvell uses a variety of poetic techniques such as hyperbolic language unlike the other two poets who use monosyllabic language and simpler sentence structures.

My preference of two poems, and the one I feel to be the most seductive is Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." I believe the content of the poem is excellent as the progression of Marvell's frustration is clearly evident in each of the three stanzas. This is coupled with sentiments of the poem conveying a significant insight into Marvell's thoughts. My decision is based on the varied language Marvell has used. I feel it is very effective as there is a good and varied use of poetic techniques in conjunction with effective sentence structure. This all combines to make the poem more enjoyable to read and in terms of seduction, a much more effective seduction poem because of it. I prefer this poem to the other two because I believe John Donne used a lack of poetic techniques and his poem "The Flea" is not very seductive as he ends his poem in becoming desperate and pleading with the woman, a sharp contrast to how the first two stanzas began.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Comparison of Donne's 'The Flea' and Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress'. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Comparison of Donne's 'The Flea' and Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' essay
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