Ironic Symbolism in the the Flea and Unkknown Citizen

Topics: W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Sexual intercourse Pages: 6 (2406 words) Published: April 6, 2011
Chloe McKee
English 112- Formal Essay 1
February 28, 2011
Morals, Personality and True Identity

Ironic Symbolism is used to define the conflicts within “The Flea” by John Donne and “The Unknown Citizen” by W.H Auden by having a significant object, which is a flea and a monument, which represent a conflict that is portrayed throughout the poem. The flea represents three different arguments that are introduced in each stanza based on sex and the morals behind it. The monument in the “Unknown Citizen”, symbolizes the model citizen only based on statistics and not the true identity of the human such as their personality. Both these authors create a compelling conflict with arguments and evidence which can be portrayed through the ironic symbolism of the flea as well as the monument.

John Donne’s “The Flea” is a seductive poem in which the author introduces a flea as a symbol of morals, sex, marriage and a reference to Jesus and his innocence. By the end of the poem the author has created a very convincing argument as to why sex with him should be considered. He has proved that it is not only a big deal, but that it would just show their compassion for one another. He argues that if she did not then he is worried that she will be breaking her own morals. The symbol of the flea changes throughout the poem and represents three different sides that are evidence to his argument.

The first argument portrays sex as insignificant and that it could not be reflected as a dishonor. He says that sex cannot be seen as bad considering a flea bite is not thought of as a sin. A critic of Donne believes that “the man was depicted as the enemy who only had sex on his mind. He thought that he could trick the women into believe that sex was not against her beliefs because supposedly if she had killed the flea it is not considered a sin so how is sex” (Mansour). After diminishing the significance of the lover’s virginity, Donne moves on to images of combined blood. The flea has sucked blood from both he and his lover so that their “two bloods mingled be” (l.4). The mingling of the two bloods calls to mind the exchange of bodily fluids, whether blood or otherwise, that occurs during sex. Blood is also intimately connected to the body, so the mixing of the blood equivalents to the intertwining of two bodies joined in sex. Mansour suggests that “the male speaker in the poem assumes the position of the woman seduced rather than that of the invading flea, whose conduct provides medium for is contention” (Mansour). This is more evident in the next two stanzas when the author introduces the ideas of marriage, morals, and religious ideologies which are represented by the flea.

Donne next argues that the mingling of the blood within the flea cannot be considered “a sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead” (l. 6). These are all ways in which sex with him would be viewed. Most religions consider premarital sex a sin and society shames those that are known to have participated in this particular act. Donne is suggesting that sex would be considered one of those three possibilities, instead of being all three at the same time, as it is commonly viewed. But it is a fact that it would be impossible for only one of characteristics to occur because of the “loss of maidenhead” or the hymen would be inevitable. Donne seems to be improving his argument by making the consequences of sex with him appear less severe.

In the second stanza Donne introduces two principal metaphors. First, when he writes, “three lives in one flea spare,” (l.10) he is saying that the fluid inside the flea is not just blood, but also the blood of his lover and his blood. Their lives are contained within the flea because the flea bit both of them. The flea is the first life, and they are the other two. By using the word “spare” to describe the flea, Donne once again diminishes its importance. However, Donne also says, “This flea is you and I” (l. 12). By first making...

Cited: Auden, W.H. "W.H Auden "The Unknown Citizen"" The Literary Link. Web. 07 Feb. 2011. <>.
Donne, John. ""The Flea"" The Literary Link. Web. 16 Feb. 2011. <>.
Mansour, Wisam. “Donne’s The Flea.” The Explicator 65.1 (2006) 7+. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 15 Feb. 2011.
Meyer, Bruce. “An Essay on “The Unknown Citizen”.” Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 15 Feb. 2011.
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