Comparison of Love Poetry

The poem "To Fanny" by John Keats, written in the 19th Century, and the poem "The Flea" by John Donne, written in the 17th Century both have many similarities in their style, content, language, as well as differences in these and their form and structure. Both poems describe and explain want of love, yet go about convincing and persuading their loved one in different ways.

"The Flea", by John Donne, is a poem in which the narrator is a man who is trying to persuade a woman to sleep with him. He refers to a flea, forming an absurd comparison of their love, and tells the woman that a simple flea has done greater things than they have dared to do. He uses many techniques to form a convincing argument, as well as finding reasons why the woman should not kill the flea.

The poet tries to convince the woman by first of all explaining that sleeping together would not be "a sinne, nor shame, not loss of maidenhead". He is telling the woman not to worry about all the things she believes would happen. This assurance is simple, and easily understood by the reader and the woman. The fact that the flea has already combined their blood is another factor used to persuade the woman to have sex with him as the flea is still alive and unworried by the fact.

Having the main persuasive points towards the beginning means that throughout the rest of the poem, the woman can think about them, and should gradually believe them with the help of other persuasive tactics. However, the woman is not impressed or swayed by the speaker's argument and proceeds to knock it down by killing the flea.

Throughout the poem, the argument is kept flowing, and the narrator sounds confident. This is achieved by the regular rhyming scheme and the regular rhythm and stanza forms. The first eight lines of each stanza are written in rhyming couplets, giving a feeling of control, without them sounding too forced. This control makes the reader feel that the narrator has thought this through and is certain of his argument. The lines alternate between eight and ten syllables, again lending to the feel of control. This regular rhythm also gives the poem life so it continues to move so his argument can grow. The last line of each stanza is a repeat of the form of the ninth line, so it is again ten syllables and creates a rhyming triplet.

The narrator's tone also conveys his confidence. He uses commanding language towards the woman, for example "Marke but this flea". The words he uses also make the poem seem conversational; he is addressing the woman and talking to her, rather than simply stating a fact. This direct voice persuades the woman, or the reader, to continue reading and to let the poet complete his argument.

The narrator makes the request more respectable by including religious terminology, such as "marriage temple" and that inside the flea they are "cloystered" rather than 'protected'. Cloisters are a part of a church, and so this choice of word continues the theme and thoughts of religion. He suggests that because the flea has mingled the two bloods inside of itself, the flea's body has become a kind of church, where the narrator and the woman have become married.

The speaker tries to persuade the woman to whom the poem is addressed not to kill the flea. She threatens to do so because they are pest, but the speaker is using the flea in his argument. He says that it represents what he desires; the two of them to have sex. His argument is that as the flea is holy, she cannot kill it as it would be sacrilege. He also argues that because their blood is inside the flea, killing it would be the murder of himself and herself, as well as the murder of the flea. Murder and sacrilege are sins, and are should convince the woman to refrain from killing the flea.

This use of sexual imagery also continues to make his desires clear to the woman. While the first stanza explains what the flea has done, and relates it to their relationship, it is developed and made more obvious that it is sex that he is asking her for. The word 'marriage' is repeated to accentuate the topic of his desire, and the word 'bed' is included too.

The poet even twists his argument towards the end when the woman opposes him. He previously had stated that killing the flea would be three murders, including suicide, as well as sacrilege, but the woman kills the flea anyway. Though she does not speak herself, the poet writes what the narrator says in response to the woman's actions. He is shocked by the brutal act, saying it was "cruel and sodaine" (sudden). The woman, on the other hand, defies the man and defeats his argument; the poet describes that she has said that killing the flea has made no difference. The poet's clever use of this fact is to then argue that exactly the same thing would happen if they did sleep together. He tries to persuade that just like killing the flea, nothing would happen. This turn in argument gives the reader the sense that he is determined and clear in his argument.

The second poem, To Fanny, by John Keats, is also a poem in which the narrator is trying to gain something. Instead of persuading a woman to sleep with him, he is persuading a woman to love him. Keats also uses many different tactics to try and argue that the woman should love him, but not the same as in "The Flea".

Keats identifies the purpose of the poem and the subject of the persuasion in the first line, with the repetition of the word "love" to secure it in the reader's mind. He goes on to explain in more detail that it is the entire of Fanny's love he wants. Like the first poem, the subject of the argument is made clear so the woman or reader is clear about what the rest of the poem is trying to persuade.

The poem is erratic and spontaneous; the man is pouring out all his emotions and needs for love. There are many hyphens and commas breaking up the lines, for example, "mercy—pity—love!—aye, love!". These give the poem a sense of wildness and energy. The poem is written in sonnet form, which manages to give the poem a small sense of control. Though the lines are a jumble of mixed-up feelings, the lines still rhyme alternately, and for most of the poem, important words have been placed so they are stressed in the iambic pentameter, such as "That shape, that fairness". The reader is more aware of these words and so they become a strong part of the argument. Whole lines or parts of lines do not fit with the sonnet's rhythm. "Forget, in the mist of idle misery" does not fit; it has to be read differently because mist is an important word and should be stressed, but using the sonnet's rhythm, it is a weak syllable. The iambic pentameter also forces the reader to read it in a very regular beat, which the comma changes. It makes us pause mid-line to emphasis the word 'forget' as this highlights the narrator's prediction that without his love he will lose his mind. The mist explains that without the woman's love, he is lost and confused. His world will be empty, with nothing but mist, where he will be miserable.

The tone of To Fanny is much more desperate than "The Flea". Whereas in "The Flea", the narrator is confident and almost calm, Keats is pleading and wild. The language he uses makes the reader aware of how urgent the plea is and how important this entire love is for him. His threat of death: "Withhold no atom's atom or I die" informs us that it is not simply a feeling of want, but a feeling of need. Because of this, the reader is more likely to stop and actually consider what the poet is persuading.

Keats uses other comments begging for pity, to encourage the woman to love him, in the hope that she will feel sorry for him and not want him to suffer. He tells the reader that he will become her "wretched thrall" (slave); loving her forever with no life of his own. He also makes us aware of his total despair. He says, (without all of her love he will live on with) "the palate of my mind losing its gust". Everything else that he has ever thought about or that has intrigued him will no longer keep him interested in life. This statement is a description of what the woman's actions of withholding love will cause, and is intended to make her stop and think about the consequences of her actions. This use of synaesthesia, describing his mind as something that can taste, also contributes to the confusion that he is suffering because of his outburst of emotions and needs.

A straight-forward tactic he uses to persuade the woman to love him is flattery. Three lines describe and admire her physical attributes, such as "eyes divine". The use of multiple commas in the eighth line causes us to linger over the description of her breasts, the way that speaker wishes to. These compliments are the poet's attempt to not only describe and explain what he desires, but to get on the right side of the woman so she is more likely to acquiesce.

"To Fanny" and "The Flea" have the same subject, love, and the same purpose, persuading a loved one for either sex or love. Both poems are effective and thorough in their arguments, including many different reasons why the respective woman should comply. Methods of persuasion such as flattery are implemented. These are strengthened by the poets' careful selection and placing of words and punctuation, as well as consideration of the structure and order of stanzas.


A/N-this piece was an essay for English last year and it compares two of of the many love poems that we studied that term.
-other excellent love poems by the masters are "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" by Shakespeare and "To his coy mistress" by Andrew Marvell.