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The Flea by John Donne and The Altar by George Herbert

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1685 words Published: 28th Sep 2017

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Compare and contrast the The Flea by John Donne and The Altar by George Herbert.

The Flea by John Donne, published in 1633, is an erotic metaphysical poem in which the concept of a flea serves as an extended metaphor for the relationship between the speaker and his beloved. In comparison George Herbert’s The Altar, also published in 1633, demonstrates through the conceit of an altar how one should offer himself as a sacrifice to the Lord. This essay will compare and contrast; the poetic techniques, the shape of the poems and the use of meter. This essay will also highlight how these features link in with the main themes of sexual desires, religion and repetition to evoke the meaning of each poem.

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Both poets present the speaker differently through the use of poetic devices. For example, the metaphysical conceit in The Flea begins when the speaker states ‘And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be’. (4) This metaphor suggests that the speaker believes the mixing of two bloods is similar to the consecration of marriage and this is the argument the speaker sets up to woo his lover. The speaker uses direct address when he says ‘how little that which thou deniest me’. (2) By using the determiner ‘little’ it shows how he is trying to convince his lover of the unimportance of sexual intercourse. In addition, the possessive pronoun ‘me’ suggests he is trying to assert his authority, thus highlighting his sexual desire even more.

In complete contrast, the speaker in The Altar is ambiguous as Herbert refers to a ‘servant’, (1) which implies anybody could be speaking it; whether it is the poet, the reader or even a priest, as it seems to be in the form of a prayer. Furthermore, the speaker illuminates they are addressing someone of higher importance as he refers to the ‘Lord’ (1). In addition, the adjective ‘broken’ (1) is an expression of a heartfelt sense of inadequacy and so this further captures Herbert’s meaning to define man’s place before God. It is important to take in to account how Donne and Herbert have a distinct contrast in how they use religion as a theme to evoke the meaning of their poems.

Following on from this, Donne uses the general insignificance of a flea to be the primary image of the poem thus revealing his humorous and witty tone; as it contrasts with the act of intercourse, which is of monumental importance to many religious people back in the seventeenth century. Unlike Donne, Herbert uses the conceit of an altar to show how one should offer himself to God. Through his conceit, Herbert highlights the importance of devoting oneself to God, whereas Donne only uses religious imagery in order to win over his lover. In The Flea, the metaphor ‘three lives in one flea spare’ (10) contradicts what the speaker believes to be of unimportance. The speaker tries to manipulate his lover by suggesting she is going against the sanctity of marriage if she kills the flea. The image of ‘three lives’ equates to the three persons of the Holy Trinity; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By incorporating this imagery, Donne effectively uses Biblical references to shape his argument and tries to seduce his lover in a crafty manner.

However in The Altar, the metaphor ‘A HEART alone / Is such a stone’ (5/6) demonstrates how devout the speaker believes he is without offering himself fully to God. The noun ‘HEART’ is in bold and is placed near the centre of the poem, which illuminates that the heart should be central to what is being done. In addition, this suggests if the heart was to be taken out, the altar would lose its significance. This metaphor also symbolises the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden; the sin that he committed represents the heart that has died. This again links in with the idea that one should offer himself as a sacrifice to God.

Both Donne and Herbert’s poems create an effective visual image with the purpose of linking back to the meaning. The repetition of the shape in The Flea and the indentation of the last three lines of each stanza refer back to this three in one imagery. This repetition suggests a habitual routine that the speaker is a product of as he is determined to persuade his lover to agree in sexual intercourse. Furthermore, the speaker says ‘three lives’ (10) and ‘three sins in killing three’ (18) which are of high importance. This repetition of the three in one imagery suggests each stanza mirrors the concept of the flea, the lover and the speaker or even more importantly the Holy Trinity.

In the same way the theme of repetition and religion has come across in The Flea, The Altar also creates a visual impact. Like Donne’s repetition of the shape of the stanzas, Hebert’s poem also repeats the shape of the first four lines with the last four lines. This creates a sense of how the spiritual world will always overrule the material world. The speaker in The Flea gives reference to material things such as sexual intercourse in order to win over his lover. However in the first four lines of The Altar, the speaker gives reference ‘workmans tools’ (4) to suggest that material goods will never be on same level as the spiritual world.

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Micah Krabill states Herbert has ‘made an external altar for the reader; by approaching the poem, the reader approaches the altar.’ (Krabill, 1998) Following on from this, Herbert purposefully sets the shape of this poem like an altar so that the reader places themselves before God, which links back to Krabill’s statement of how the reader approaches the altar. Herbert gives reference to a ‘broken ALTAR’ (1) which is clever as the poem is in the shape of a broken altar. This evokes the meaning of how the pathway to God is not always easy. Herbert further emphasises the significance of religion when the shape moulds to the centre at ‘A HEART alone’ (5), thus highlighting how the heart is at the centre of the sacrifice given to God. The repetition of the shape of the last four lines links in with the visual shape in The Flea as it suggests the speaker is prepared to offer himself fully at the end of the poem.

The meter of each poem are similar in that they fall in to the iambic rhythm, however they create different impacts. The Flea alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter for example ‘Though use make you apt to kill me, / Let not to that, self-murder added be’. (16/17) However the last three lines in each stanza alternate between tetrameter for line seven and then pentameter for lines eight and nine. The alternate meter and having three couplets and one triplet in each nine line stanza links back to the idea of the speaker’s manipulative motive and scheming behaviour in order to engage in sexual desires throughout the poem. In comparison with the complexity of his argument, the rhyme scheme follows an aabbccddd pattern in which every last word of each line, with the exception of ‘maidenhead’ (6) and ‘innocence’ (20), all has one syllable. For example, ‘me’, ‘thee’ and ‘three’ all address the speaker, his lover and refer back to the three in one imagery. By having one syllable for every word, it links back to the simplicity of what the speaker wants.

Like Donne’s poem, The Altar engages in an alternate iambic pentameter and iambic tetrameter for the first two couplets. The poem then changes to iambic dimeter for four couplets and then the last two couplets mirror the alternate meters in the first two couplets. Similarly to The Flea, the alternate meter’s highlight the speaker’s character. The immediate switch from iambic tetrameter to iambic dimeter speeds the pace of the poem up; the middle section illuminates the speaker’s message in how he believes one should offer himself to God. The last couple of iambic dimeter is, ‘Meets in this frame / To praise thy name’ (11/12) which is of high significance. Herbert cleverly uses a punning reference to the ‘frame’ of the poem and also a person’s state of mind. Following on from this, the alternate meter’s also fit in with the visual shape of the poem which is effective as it links in with the metaphysical conceit of an altar that Herbert uses throughout. Both poets use various meter’s to demonstrate either the duplicitous motive of the speaker in The Flea or to strengthen importance of the message in The Altar.

Both Donne and Herbert structure their poems effectively using the metaphysical conceits of a flea and an altar to highlight the message that is intended. Without fail, both poets are able to use the shape of their poems and also various meters’ in order to create different impacts upon the reader. The Flea and The Altar are seen as completely different poems due to the erotic and seductive behaviour of the speaker in the first poem, yet the latter is in complete contrast as the speaker addresses God in a respectful and dutiful manner. Nevertheless, both Donne and Herbert highlight similar themes such as sexual desires, religion and repetition in order to bring to light the meaning of both poems effectively.


Krabill, M. (1998). Visual Metaphor. Interpreting English Literature: Milton, Herbert & Donne. Retrieved from http://finneganswake.net/academia/visualmetaphor.html (Accessed 10th March, 2014)


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