Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Fleas, compasses, love and seduction

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John Dryden (1631-1700) feared that ‘the minds of the fair sex would be perplexed’. Dr Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) muttered darkly about ‘the most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together’.

What on earth was bothering them? Well, brace yourselves, because the cause of their dysphoria was metaphysical conceit. Don’t change channels and stop secretly texting at the back there: we’re talking interesting stuff about fleas and compasses being like love and seduction and – er –  etherised patients.

The metaphysical poets

The term ‘metaphysical’ was first used in relation to poetry by Dr Johnson, who wanted to express his disapproval of the convoluted and complex way that many seventeenth century poets expressed themselves. The metaphysical poets, of whom John Donne (1572-1631) was the arch exponent, used a literary device known as ‘conceit’.

What is metaphysical conceit?

In poetic terms, a conceit is a highly original and totally unexpected comparison or analogy that makes the reader sit up and consider a thought, idea or emotion in a completely new or different way.

Love and compasses

So, if you love someone you think of… compasses. Of course you do. Donne does, anyway. Here are a few lines from A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. Having spoken of, our two souls, therefore, which are one, Donne goes on to say:

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do. 

The poem ends:

Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun. 

It gets a bit racy; you have been warned. Read the poem in full 

Love and fleas

Donne had the art of seduction down to a fine art: fleas, he thought, would do the trick. And, somehow, it works. Seems so obvious now. In The Flea, Donne writes:

It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Then later:

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

She apparently kills the flea. Read into that what you will.

Here’s an excellent brief analysis of the poem.

Read the poem in full.

A modern take on the metaphysical conceit

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was a bit of a Donne fan and his influence can perhaps be traced in some of the conceits Eliot used in his own work. For example, the following lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917):

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table


‘Metaphysics’ is the philosophy of being and knowing, and is also used pejoratively to describe an abstract theory that has no basis in reality.

Metaphors and similes



16 Responses

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  1. Morning Deborah,

    I suppose Love and Compasses is marginally better than “Love and Bullets”?

    Those lines from Prufrock, though – not so much a metaphysical conceit as simply deeply, utterly, weird. Takes a very strange mind to come up with that, I think, and it doesn’t even work very well as an image.

    I’ve never got on with Elliot (don’t suppose he’d care), because I’m always left with just one very strong feeling – that he was a pretentious prat!

    Still, he has provided generations of students with something to endlessly and pointlessly analyse, during long, booze and pot-fuelled nights, as an alternative to the Moody Blues.

    My ex, who taught English to A level, often told me about long nights, as a student, spent sitting around in a group, analysing the lyrics of the Moody Blues. When I asked why they didn’t just get pleasantly buzzed and enjoy the music, all I got was a blank look.


    04/11/2010 at 8:41 am

    • Hi, Ron

      Deeply, utterly weird = metaphysical conceit??

      I really like that Eliot image, and I think it works. To me, it’s suggestive of several things: an individual’s state of mind; a general malaise; and the physical appearance of the evening skyline (to a jaundiced eye, perhaps). I haven’t studied Eliot in depth, but I think Prufrock is a wonderfully evocative poem in all sorts of ways. Lots of what Orwell would call ‘homely’ imagery is also used:

      The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes,
      The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes

      I also love the following lines from the poem, which I quoted to my ancient dad this summer when he was wandering about in the garden on a hot day with his trousers turned up (life imitating art):

      I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
      I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.


      04/11/2010 at 9:07 am

      • He forgot elasticated waists . . .


        04/11/2010 at 9:14 am

        • Just been in search of my Eliot book (likening a surgical patient to a sunset is so bizarre I wanted to have a look at it in context, to see if it works any better), but it must be among my boxed books.

          Ah well, I did find Borrow, so the effort wasn’t entirely wasted.


          04/11/2010 at 9:25 am

          • One thing always leads to another!


            04/11/2010 at 9:27 am

  2. Ooh, hello! I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and fallen in love!


    04/11/2010 at 12:21 pm

    • What a lovely thing to say! Thank you! Hope you visit often.


      04/11/2010 at 6:48 pm

  3. One of the reasons the flea dies is they actually thought sex made one closer to dying if I recall, hence the slang for climax. Good times!


    04/11/2010 at 2:23 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — yes, there’s lots of racy stuff that I couldn’t possibly go into here without issuing a government health warning and telling my mum not to visit. It is a fascinating subject, though. Thanks for reading, as ever. I do appreciate your comments.


      04/11/2010 at 6:50 pm

  4. I hadn’t realized all the romance hidden in my dog’s sleeping mat.

    Michael Farrell

    04/11/2010 at 3:54 pm

    • See — live and learn. Don’t you feel a poem coming on?


      04/11/2010 at 6:54 pm

      • Yes. Well, more of a limerick, actually.

        Michael Farrell

        04/11/2010 at 7:23 pm

  5. […] Fleas, compasses, love and seduction (dbennison.wordpress.com) […]

  6. John Stammers in the Guardian:

    If there are a number of great conceits in the Marvell, then there is a single one in this, at first sight tasteless masterpiece. Almost, one feels, as an exercise in virtuosity, Donne turns a human flea into a persuasive romantic symbol. Said flea has just bitten both himself and the object of his attentions and so becomes an improbable erotic crucible: Donne argues disingenuously that, as the two of them are now conjoined in the flea, they might just as well get on with the grosser physical details.


    09/02/2011 at 11:15 am

  7. I’d quibble with “both himself” above — I’m in a nitpicking mood.

    Michael Farrell

    09/02/2011 at 4:35 pm

    • Yes, the prose is pretty clumpy generally, both grammatically and in the choice of words; I don’t think ‘grosser physical details’ is at all appropriate, especially in juxtaposition with his earlier reference to a ‘persuasive romantic symbol’. And is it ‘at first sight (a) tasteless masterpiece’? But nitpicking about fleas is very apt. Thanks, Michael.


      09/02/2011 at 4:43 pm

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