And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 24. mars 2015

Two fleas - Saint Macarius and John Donne

Since the past few days have entailed and will entail quite a lot of travelling for me, I will in this blogpost very briefly present two very different historical snippets, both concerning fleas.

The first flea can be found in Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, as part of an anecdote about the great desert father Macarius of Egypt (c.300-90), founder of a monastery in Scetis in Egypt, whose feast-day is January 15. The best known accounts of Macarius are in the collections of stories known as Apothegmata Patrum or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and Vitae Patrum or Lives of the Desert Fathers. However, it doesn't seem that Jacobus knew these collection sfrom first-hand experience, as there are several anecdotes in the themwhich are not included in the Legenda. For instance, in Vitae Patrum we are told how Macarius healed the blindness of a hyena's puppy, and how as a reward the hyena brought Macarius a sheepskin for him to sleep on.

A further indication that Jacobus did not draw on these collections is the anecdote of the flea, which is not found in either. In Legenda Aurea the story goes as follows:

Fresco of St Macarius, by Theophanes the Greek (1340-1410) from 1378
Church of the Transfiguration on Ilina Street, Veliky Novgorod
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Once a flea bit Macarius and he killed it with his hand, and a great deal of blood came out of it. As a punishment for having so avenged the injury done him he lived naked in the desert for six months and came out with bites and scabs all over his body. After that he fell asleep in the Lord, renowned for his many virtues.

- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea (translated by William Granger-Ryan)

Excerpt from the Aberdeen Bestiary on "Lice, fleas and ticks"
Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f72v
, English bestiary, c.1200
Courtesy of Aberdeen University Library

The second flea is a poem composed by John Donne at the turn of the sixteenth century, and the text is taken from Bartleby. Donne's poem is in marked contrast to the anecdote of Macarius, because although both are concerned with the negative consequences of killing a flea, John Donne's poem is an erotic argument whose purpose would be horrifying to the lover of chastity Macarius. The poem is typical of Donne's clever verbal play in which metaphors for love and sex are drawn from objects, animals and even geographical abstractions. It was this quality that made Samuel Johnson baptise this style of poetry – very popular throughout the seventeenth century – “metaphysical poetry”.

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It suck’d 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 pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;

  And this, alas! is more than we would do.

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.

Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,

And cloister’d 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 suck’d from thee?

Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou

Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.

  ’Tis true; then learn how false fears be;
  Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,

  Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.


Burrow, Colin (ed.), Metaphysical Poetry, Penguin Classics, 2013

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Russell, Norman (ed. and transl.), Lives of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications, 1980

Ward, Benedicta (ed. and transl.), Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications, 1975

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