Two Mystic Poets and a Bed Bug
One isn’t too surprised about the intimate knowledge of fleas for people who lived in those times when beds and houses were filled with varied creatures who lived alongside human beings very cosily. In the past we were certainly in touch with Nature in all its moods and variety of living forms, be they pleasant to human beings or not, an animal species alongside all the other animals. They were considered as part of all the living things created by God and so must be studied, tolerated, accepted even if sometimes utterly disliked. Nowadays, most of so called civilised humanity (those who live in civitas – Latin for towns) have a somewhat sentimental understanding of animals and a perfect horror of insects, bugs, bacteria , mice, rats and anything that penetrates the sanctity of their homes. We are encouraged now to sanitise our houses into a safe, impenetrable sterility. And I’m all for it as much as anyone else.
We seldom see flies these days. But when meat hung on hooks over a fire, lay on a platter in the larder or left uncovered at times, flies were naturally attracted to the home. Now we have fridges and freezers; not places where a fly feels comfortable or willing to search for a meal. I remember still those frightful sticky fly catchers in the shape of colourful parrots dangling from my grandmother’s ceiling covered in nasty black victims and feel grateful for fridges and my little larder. I have no objection to house spiders. They do a useful job though those huge hairy creatures that seem to invade in the autumn and are especially fond of getting stuck in the bath, have to be fished out and sent off to the garden where they belong.
Many old erotic poems were written about fleas, strange as such a subject might seem. The poet addressing his loved one would be envious of the creature’s ability to be close to his love in places he could not touch or reach, exploring her milk white bosom, crawling beneath her petticoats to inhabit those areas he would love to be able to explore himself! This small creature had no boundaries, no conventions as the lover must needs have. Its death at her hands at the height of its bliss as it sucks her blood was a metaphor for sexuality as the words ‘die’ and ‘kill’ were then considered to be. ‘The little death’ they called it because orgasm for a man was said to shorten his life span and take away something from him every time. Nowadays we believe the exact opposite and say men who have regular sex live longer!
|Bianca Pnzoni Anguissola|
(the artists mother) by Sofonisba Anguissola
Ladies apparently took to carrying around elaborately bejewelled little fur tippets or zibellino (italian for sable) which they apparently hoped might attract the fleas away from their bodies into the warm fur they held. A rather impossible notions as fleas like warmth it's true but they also want live creatures blood to feed on!
|Bernardino Luini: Lady with a flea fur 1515|
Walter's Art Museum
The first ‘flea’ poem is said to have been written by Ovid but there were others written or told before his. John Donne’s famous poem ‘The Flea’ is following an older tradition but he uses it in a most effective, witty and cheeky manner to put forward his case to his lady love (whom we assume might have been the lady who later became his wife)
John Donne is considered the foremost of the so called ‘metaphysical’ poets. He was born on January22nd 1572 in
London to a Catholic family
at a time when Catholicism had been banned in England and scarcely
tolerated. Catholics were banned from
many a career prospect in law, politics or the church. Several members of Donne’s family were
persecuted, tortured and considered as martyrs.
His own brother was imprisoned and forced under torture to give away a
priest he had been sheltering. The
priest, William Harrington, was hung drawn and quartered, a nasty death – for what sin? But, of course, he was considered a traitor
and dealt with accordingly. As for poor
Henry Donne, he died in prison of the bubonic plague. This affected John Donne deeply and made him
question his catholic faith. He was
ambitious and wished to prosper and no doubt realised that people were afraid
of the Papists, convinced they would create some sort of revolution and call in
support those countries still staunchly Roman Catholic and subservient to the
Pope in Rome.
Donne must have had a charming and charismatic nature because he escaped all this family harassment. Or perhaps he had the kind of nature like the tree that bent with the wind and thus survived the storm. He was educated at a school in
Oxford, admitted to Cambridge
University at 14 years of age, accepted
at 15 to study law at Lincoln’s Inn. People had
short lives in these days and packed action in from an early age. After his studies he began to travel
extensively abroad. He appeared bent on
some sort of diplomatic career, became a member of parliament and was
eventually asked by King James (well – ordered really) to become a cleric of the Anglican church. He accepted this post and eventually became
Dean of St. Paul’s in which great London
church lie his remains.
He seems to have been quite a womaniser in his youth, hence many an erotic poem which he shared round his patrons for their amusement much as we might do on Facebook today. The portrait below was possibly painted for a lady he wished to attain. The undone collar suggests this to some but it was in fact a fashion of the time. However, he eventually fell in love with Anne More and in 1601 married her secretly against the wishes of her father thus getting himself into trouble and even landing in Fleet prison. He was eventually released but it affected his career. Anne bore him twelve children, of whom two were stillbirths. The poor woman spent her life pregnant and nursing and caring for the family while Donne scraped a meagre living so that poverty was never far away. Anne died after the last stillbirth in 1617. Donne had loved her deeply and mourned her loss in his 17th Holy Sonnet. As far as we know, he was faithful to her, turning more and more towards spiritual matters, laced with doubts, questions and philosophies.
Donne’ poetry is unusual for the times, often beginning abruptly, full of sudden twists and turns, with unusual metaphors and contrasting, unexpected ideas (called conceits). It was considered ‘physical’ poetry because poetic metres and styles changed after the laws of Aristotle . . . in other words after physics. They are witty, ingenious poems, full of complex themes both sacred and profane. His poetry was written for a few patrons and never published in his lifetime. The love poems are sexual, sensual, quite different to the ideal of courtly love that had flourished with the troubadors where one’s lady was unobtainable, mysterious, a spiritual object rather than a carnal one. Donne’s ladies are to be bedded and urgently, lustfully! He seldom used classical mythology in his poetry as many other poets were wont to do a that time. Instead he chose plain words, plain speaking yet expressed in such a way as to make them fresh, original and even startling.
Thus we come to his amusing poem The Flea. It has been conjectured that the letter ‘s’ in the fifteenth-sixteenth century looked very like an ‘f’ to gather the subtle ribaldness of ‘it sucked me first and now sucks thee’. It’s a possibility that Donne might have hinted at this idea and his poems generally contain barely disguised references to states of arousal and bodily fluids being exchanged. Those Elizabethans were a saucy lot.
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 mariage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are 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.
Here’s an argument worthy of a lawyer’s mind. The lustful lover argues that as the flea has bitten them both, it contains them united in love, a marriage bed, a marriage temple. There is no sin, no shame in this - so why not make love and unite thus? The lady isn’t convinced and makes to kill the flea and her lover tries to stay her hand but no. ‘hast thou since purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?’ and not only that but she is triumphant in saying the flea’s death hasn’t affected them one little bit; it certainly hasn’t weakened them. In which case, retorts the cunning lover, the tiny amount of life blood taken by the flea is like the tiny amount of honour she will lose by yielding to him. It’s a merry poem and treats his lady as a person of equal wit and intelligence.
In contrast to this humorous look at the flea we turn to one far more horrifying. The next poetical flea is actually a painting rather than a poem. It was painted by the mystical poet and artist William Blake whose story I portrayed in my last blog. This tiny but exquisitely painted picture is called The Ghost of a Flea and hangs in the Tate Gallery in
London. Apparently the drawing of the Flea came about
when Blake spent an evening with his friend John Varley. Varley was a student of esoteric subjects and
believed in the existence of spirits and those things which required ‘an eye to
see and an ear to hear’– in other words those visions beyond the limits of the
physical eye and ear and its limited capacities. He knew that Blake had daily seen visions
since an early age, one of which was a tree filled with bright angels and
celestial beings and claimed to often be surrounded by ghostly beings as he
painted. Varley and Blake would often
meet and hold a kind of séance together in which Varley would call up some
historical or mythological being and Blake would sketch the vision that
appeared to him.
On this particular occasion it seems as if the image of the Flea came spontaneously to Blake. Varley asked him to sketch it. Blake did so, saying he saw it very clearly before him. The result became the little painting now in the Tate. It is beautifully finished with applied gold leaf on the stars. A monstrous bull like creature is striding purposefully between rich brocade curtains as if on a stage, the background a starry night perhaps depicting the universe, a symbol of the creation or something greater than the creature, monstrous as it is. The Flea’s snake like tongue seeks the bowl of food before it. A strange vision. But not the first such vision to be thus depicted by the artist. Blake seemed to have had an inner or subconscious vision of such muscular, often horrifying beings who, for him, were epitomes of all that was loathsome and evil. The only time he saw a ghost, according to Alexander Gilchrist, his Victorian biographer, was when he lived in Lambeth. The ghost described was very similar to the vision of the flea and terrified Blake so much he turned and ran.
What, we wonder, are these visions? Modern psychology would say they were sub personalities drawn from his own unconscious mind, haunting him as such lost and long-forgotten inner beings do. They certainly seem to be the Shadow side of Blake’s angelic visions. Ghostly images do occur and many perfectly sensible, intelligent people claim to have seen them, especially when young. When we are young, we are open to other realms and states of existence but this open state of mind narrows down till all we see in the end is that tiny portion of existence before our physical eyes – and even that but imperfectly – ‘as in a glass darkly’ – St. Paul would have said.
Or as Wordsworth had it in Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream
The earth and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore: -
Turn wheresoe’er I may
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
But Blake carried on seeing his visions up to the moment of his death.