Mark but this flea, and mark in this

Here is a playful poem by John Donne, quite similar in tone and subject matter to Andrew Marvell’s “To his coy mistress” (posted here on October 7, 2014). Both poems are jokily seductive, using humour and twisted logic to seduce the poets’ loved one. As we all know, making your partner laugh is an essential step in the process of seduction.

The poet compares himself to the flea which has bitten his desired lover – but the flea has had more success than the poet, at least so far….

The Flea


Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

From <;

In fact the poet claims in the first stanza that since the flea has bitten them both, this means that their blood is already mixed together as a precursor to being together in life. But alas, in the final line of the stanza, Donne laments that the fleas has achieved more then himself in getting intimate with his loved one.

In the second stanza, Donne implores his lover not to kill the flea, since their blood is mixed by the two flea-bites. The flea is compared to the state of marriage and sharing a bed. So the poet imagines that if his lover would just take guidance from the flea, she will succumb to Donne’s advances.

But in the third stanza, it seems that the lady in question kills the flea, unmoved by the poet’s ingenuity. Donne takes her task, for crushing the insect with her nail. But there is silver lining as the poet suggests that his lover’s honour will not suffer from yielding to his seduction, just as she was able to kill the flea without bringing weakness on herself.

Whether he succeeded or not, I hope Donne made his lover laugh.

The Poetry Dude

Ô mon très cher amour, toi mon oeuvre et que j’aime,

A nice love sonnet from Apollinaire in which the poet’s strength of feeling competes for attention with his erudition and somewhat unusual poetic point of view. The erudition comes right up front with the title, and sends the reader to either try and remember a bit of schoolboy Latin, or more likely these days to write a query in Google translate. Whatever the route, we find that the poet’s lover is revealed through the agency of a soothsayer (forsooth…) And the poet’s unconventional point of view is that he has actually created his lover, a bit like a sculptor creates a statue and like a poet creates a magical poem. That reminds me of Shakespeare, in many of whose sonnets he makes the preservation of his lovers youth and beauty the responsibility and achievement of the poet.


Per te prasentit aruspex

Ô mon très cher amour, toi mon oeuvre et que j’aime,
A jamais j’allumai le feu de ton regard,
Je t’aime comme j’aime une belle oeuvre d’art,
Une noble statue, un magique poème.

Tu seras, mon aimée, un témoin de moi-même.
Je te crée à jamais pour qu’après mon départ,
Tu transmettes mon nom aux hommes en retard
Toi, la vie et l’amour, ma gloire et mon emblème;

Et je suis soucieux de ta grande beauté
Bien plus que tu ne peux toi-même en être fière:
C’est moi qui l’ai conçue et faite tout entière.

Ainsi, belle oeuvre d’art, nos amours ont été
Et seront l’ornement du ciel et de la terre,
Ô toi, ma créature et ma divinité !

From <;

The first and last lines of the sonnet are symmetrically addressed to the poet’s lover, but both underscore the central role of the poet himself in creating her as if she is a work of art, or a divinity (or a divinity represented in a work of art I suppose. And her role is not just to receive the poet’s homage as an idealised version of herself, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to act as a vehicle conveying Apollinaire’s talent to posterity (lines 6 and 7).

In fact, the idea of the poet’s lover as a woman of flesh and blood, capable of returning his feelings, never takes off here, here existence is solely dependent on the whim and talent of Apollinaire himself.

Somehow I doubt that this was one of her favourite poems.

The Poetry Dude

Lloraba la niña

This is a beautiful poem from Gongora telling of an inconsolable girl, crying because her lover has left and gone away. It looks a bit like a folk ballad, but there is a lot of poetic art which has gone into making it seem so simple and flowing. The short lines keep the reader moving through it and, unlike some of Gongora’s sonnets or his long-form poems, the syntax and word order is straightforward. An all round lovely poem.

Luis de Gongora (1590)

Lloraba la niña
(Y tenía razón)
La prolija ausencia
De su ingrato amor.
Dejóla tan niña,
Que apenas creo yo
Que tenía los años
Que ha que la dejó.
Llorando la ausencia
Del galán traidor,
La halla la Luna
Y la deja el Sol,
Añadiendo siempre
Pasión a pasión,
Memoria a memoria,
Dolor a dolor.
Llorad, corazón,
Que tenéis razón.

Dícele su madre:
«Hija, por mi amor,
Que se acabe el llanto,
O me acabe yo.»
Ella le responde:
«No podrá ser, no:
Las causas son muchas,
Los ojos son dos.
Satisfagan, madre,
Tanta sinrazón,
Y lágrimas lloren
En esta ocasión,
Tantas como dellos
Un tiempo tiró
Flechas amorosas
El arquero dios.
Ya no canto, madre,
Y si canto yo,
Muy tristes endechas
Mis canciones son;
Porque el que se fue,
Con lo que llevó,
Se dejó el silencio,
Y llevó la voz.»
Llorad, corazón,
Que tenéis razón.

From <;

The Poetry Dude

Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house, and I 

Who could refuse this invitation to supper from Ben Jonson, charmingly and artfully composed in verse to describe the food, entertainment, wine and companionship to be expected or hoped for at dinner at Jonson’s house. Read, enjoy and imagine yourself setting out for such an evening as this in the London of the early 1600s.


Inviting a Friend to Supper


Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house, and I
Do equally desire your company;
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignify our feast
With those that come, whose grace may make that seem
Something, which else could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, sir, creates
The entertainment perfect, not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then
Lemons, and wine for sauce; to these a cony
Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And, though fowl now be scarce, yet there are clerks,
The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I’ll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there, and godwit, if we can;
Knat, rail, and ruff too. Howsoe’er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we’ll speak our minds, amidst our meat;
And I’ll profess no verses to repeat.
To this, if ought appear which I not know of,
That will the pastry, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese and fruit there sure will be;
But that which most doth take my Muse and me,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid’s now, but shall be mine;
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their lives, as so their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but Luther’s beer to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooley, or Parrot by,
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men;
But, at our parting we will be as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board,
Shall make us sad next morning or affright
The liberty that we’ll enjoy tonight.

From <;

The first eight lines set out the invitation itself, for the very same evening, in terms that politely flatter the invited guest by saying that his presence will grace the feast relative to the other people present; and that the success of the evening will be determined by accepting the invitation, not by the food on offer (from the context, I assume the word “cates” refers to the food.

But then Jonson goes on to describe what he is planning to serve at dinner, so it is clearly not absolutely irrelevant. The next 11 lines progress through the relatively mundane salad and mutton, to a series of birds which were presumably more exotic. Again, the wit of the poet hits that he is exaggerating or lying when listing some of these items in order to stand a better chance of having the invitation accepted.

For entertainment while dining, the poet promises readings from the classics and also promises not to read his own poem, again politeness and modesty being a way to make the evening more attractive to the invited guest.

For dessert there will be fruit and cheese washed down by wine from the Canaries which Jonson will send for to the Mermaid, presumably his local pub. In the final lines, Jonson promises convivial conversation and good company which no one will regret the next morning.

Sounds like a great evening, and who could refuse such an invitation

The Poetry Dude

Hoy como ayer, mañana como hoy,

In this poem by Becquer life is a perpetual dentist’s waiting-room or an eternity of waiting for Godot (100 years or so before Samuel Beckett came up with that idea). There is no hope, no prospect of improvement or progress, but you have to keep going, put one foot in front of the other and live one day after the next. Bleak, yes, but I think we all have these moments of wading through mud and just knowing we have to keep going.

This is not quite the theme I would have expected from a Romantic poet, which makes it even more interesting.

Today is like yesterday, tomorrow will be like today…

Hoy como ayer, mañana como hoy…

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer


Hoy como ayer, mañana como hoy,

¡y siempre igual!

Un cielo gris, un horizonte eterno

y andar… andar.

Moviéndose a compás como una estúpida

máquina el corazón:

la torpe inteligencia del cerebro

dormida en un rincón.

El alma, que ambiciona un paraíso,

buscándole sin fe;

fatiga sin objeto, ola que rueda

ignorando por qué.

Voz que incesante con el mismo tono

canta el mismo cantar,

gota de agua monótona que cae

y cae sin cesar.

Así van deslizándose los días

unos de otros en pos,

hoy lo mismo que ayer… y todos ellos

sin gozo ni dolor.

¡Ay! ¡a veces me acuerdo suspirando

del antiguo sufrir!

¡Amargo es el dolor; pero siquiera

padecer es vivir!

From <>

Five things I like about this poem?

  1. The sense of immobility in movement, in space and time – yesterday, today, tomorrow, all the same. And walking, keeping on walking in a monotonously grey sky towards a flat horizon
  2. Man’s consciousness as an unthinking machine, repeating the same acts, the same gestures, his intelligence suspended
  3. The rhythm of one long line, followed by one short line, repeated from beginning to end
  4. The glimmer of hope and possible exit from the karmic wheel, hinted at by that “siquiera” of the penultimate line
  5. I’m not sure there is a fifth thing…

The Poetry Dude

Mauldicte soit la mondaine richesse

That inveterate jester and womaniser Clement Marot gets his wake-up call to reality in this poem as he finds out that sometimes women do prefer money and status to just being with someone who is good company. He curses this eternal truth, but I bet if had as much money as he had charm he would use it to his advantage…

Clement Marot
(Avant 1529)

Mauldicte soit la mondaine richesse,
Qui m’as osté m’Amye et ma Maistresse,
Las, par verty j’ay son amytié quise,
Mais par richesse ung aultre l’a conquise;
Vertu n’a pas en amour grand prouesse.

Dieu gard de mal la Nymphe et la Deesse;
Mauldict soit l’Or, où elle a sa liesse;
Mauldicte soit la fine Soye exquise,
Le Dyamant et la Perle requise,
Puis que par eulx il fault qu’elle me laisse.


The first stanza sets the scene – the poet curses money and riches and then we find out that he has conquered the heart of a young lady only to see her turn her favours to another who has more money. The final line of the stanza laments that virtue (on its own) is not much use in the pursuit of love.

The second stanza curses in turn the gold, fine silk, diamonds and pearls which the poet’s rival has offered to turn the girl’s head. I think gifts like this would still be pretty effective today, just as they were 500 years ago when Marot wrote this poem. Romantic love by itself does not have much staying power. It is refreshing to see these realities so well expressed in a poem.

The Poetry Dude

Asesinado por el cielo

Today’s poem from Federico Garcia Lorca comes from the collection he wrote in New York on a visit in the late 1920s. Although the title is rather anodyne, rendered in English as “coming back from a walk”, the content of the poem is rather disturbing, with dark, violent and distressful images throughout the poem. The city of New York must have been a very different experience for the poet than the laid-back lifestyle of his native Andalusia, so perhaps this poem captures some of his understandable sense of alienation.


Vuelta de paseo

Asesinado por el cielo,
entre las formas que van hacia la sierpe
y las formas que buscan el cristal,
dejaré crecer mis cabellos.

Con el árbol de muñones que no canta
y el niño con el blanco rostro de huevo.

Con los animalitos de cabeza rota
y el agua harapienta de los pies secos.

Con todo lo que tiene cansancio sordomudo
y mariposa ahogada en el tintero.

Tropezando con mi rostro distinto de cada día.
¡Asesinado por el cielo!


From <;

The opening line establishes the tone of the poet as a victim of fate, murdered by the heavens. The line is repeated at the end, this time with exclamation marks, giving a symmetry to the whole poem, but also reinforcing the accumulation of threatening images which form the body of the poem in between these opening and closing lines.

The poet wanders between mysterious shapes and announces he will let his hair grow, meaning there is no point in taking care of himself or his appearance in a hostile world. He sees a tree full of severed limbs which don’t sing, a child with a face as white as an egg, animals with their heads smashed in, and so on up to the butterfly drowned in ink. The poem has the same feel as one of the surrealist paintings, perhaps like one of Salvador Dali’s works which actually put images like this across the canvas.

The final two lines bring back the focus to the poet himself, encountering his won face in a different way each day, indicating the variability of his moods inspired by such alienating surroundings – but the final line reinforces his feeling that all of these experiences are sapping his energy and life -force, and that none of this is under his control.

The Poetry Dude