Typography and Obscenity: The Case of John Donne’s “The Flea”

More or less out of use since the end of the eighteenth century and the contemporaneous transition to machine-press printing, the “long s” occupied for centuries a curious but consequential position in the third line of John Donne’s three-stanza poem “The Flea.” Below is an image of the first stanza as it appeared in the Poems volume of 1633:


To many modern readers and critics, the third line of this poem — a poem concerned with seduction, sex, and the mingling body fluids of a lover and the beloved — includes a kind of visual pun. The “long s,” only narrowly distinguishable from the letter “f,” invites an alternative reading imbued with obscenity. The unstable textual condition of Donne’s manuscripts is well-known to us now, but this “long s” points suggestively to the ways in which the typographical fortunes of Donne’s lyric could also provide a particular kind of textual malleability — that is, they could furnish, and continue to furnish, readers with multiple approaches to gender, sexuality, and desire. In today’s post I will trace — if in a cursory manner — the “long history” of this “long s,” and I will argue that its ambiguity illustrates one way in which typography can destabilize and reconstitute a poetic speaker’s sexuality and desire before new reading audiences (and critics).

A quick Google search for “donne,” “flea,” and “long s” reveals that this typographical ambiguity is widely known, if not completely obvious, although a few Donne scholars have addressed it in some detail. (Surely, more than I mention here.) In a discussion of the shifting spatial and temporal dimensions of Donne’s verse, Thomas Docherty suggests that this visual sign, fostered by print, “opens the poem . . . to an immediately titillating ambiguity” in the service of a masculinist project (54). Taking an alternative stance, Susannah B. Mintz argues that this stanza and its ambiguity suggest Donne’s play with gender:

Coursing beneath the overt terms of the seduction is a longing to do the passive thing, not just to penetrate but to be ‘pampered,’ not simply to suck but to be sucked (with the implications both of being nursed and of being ‘fucked’). (584)

These claims evince some clear opposition. While Docherty recognizes the poem’s “long s” alongside “the phallic apprehension of the female body” (58), Mintz encourages readers to view the typographical crux as showcasing jouissance and a challenge to fixed gender categories. These comments, thought brief and made somewhat in passing, fit into a larger debate about Donne and his sexuality. Rehearsing the terms of this debate, Rebecca Ann Bach attempts to break apart what she views as a consensus about Donne’s heterosexuality:

Not only will I suggest that Donne was not a heterosexual, I will also argue that, pace [Catherine] Belsey, [Richard] Halpern, and [Benjamin] Saunders, heterosexuality was not emergent in 1609 when Donne was writing his poetry. (261-62)

Bach suggests that the broader corpus of Donne’s poetry and prose — Holy Sonnets, sermons, &c — evinces a non-modern attitude toward sexuality that is religiously invested, Augustinian in nature, and often deeply misogynistic. This attitude leaves little room, she says, for egalitarian relationships between men and women.

Keeping all this in mind, I’m now going to sideline this debate, investigating — in a manner much more provocative than exhaustive — the typographical instability of “The Flea”‘s third line in relation to these recent conversations about the poet’s sexuality. Such an investigation, if carried out more fully, would join with recent calls to recognize more thoroughly the ways in which histories of editing and textual transmission help to shape critical claims about gender and sexuality. (Here, I’m indebted to D. F. McKenzie, Jerome McGann, Margreta de Grazia, and other scholars and students of the material text.)

So. Although we know the “long s” was conventional in early modern typography, the ambiguity present in “The Flea” may easily have been legible to early readers of Donne’s printed “Songs and Sonets.” An example from one of the poet’s contemporaries can illustrate just how. First published in 1598, John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary A VVorlde of Wordes included “fucker,” “a fucking,” and “fuckt” under the headwords “Fottitore,” “Fottitura,” and “Fottuto.” The lower-case “f,” appearing three times among these entries in italic type, is in close proximity in each case to “a sarder” and “a swiuer,” “a swiuing” and “a sarding,” and “sarded” and “swiued.” Pictured below, the difference between the “f” and the “long s” is very slim, if it can be discerned at all:


I am not suggesting here that readers were “confused” by the multiple “s” and “f” characters in these entries. Rather, I include this passage as an influential (and early) example of printed obscenity that also made immediately visible — indeed, showcased — the typographical similarity between “f” and the “long s.” “Fuck” was indeed known as a word in Donne’s England, and had been for a while (OED lists 1513 as its first appearance). Moreover, this book was in all likelihood familiar to Donne, who, like Florio, had ties with Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford. Both men composed verses for her, and Florio counted her among his patronesses when he composed his translation of Montaigne’s Essayes. Furthermore, Donne satirized Florio following this translation’s publication in 1603. Evidence is lacking (as it often is), but one could speculate that filthy words would have held a special attraction for a young Donne and his colleagues at the Inns of Court.

Although the “long-s” accompanied “The Flea” through its manuscript instantiations, the typographical instabilities of this character as exhibited in Florio’s dictionary became affixed to Donne’s poem upon its first printed appearance in 1633. Furthermore, the ambiguity in line three would persist typographically for nearly three centuries as the poem benefited from increased readerly and critical attention. The second edition of Donne’s Poems, issued in 1635, witnessed the grouping-together and reorganization of the “Songs and Sonets,” as well as the shuffling of “The Flea” from the twentieth position to the first. Modern editor John Carey has commented on the extreme difficulty of ordering or dating Donne’s poems in this collection, and uses the later order of 1635 “on the grounds that whoever assembled the poems for that edition showed some concern for getting the poems into a ‘correct’ order” (88). In doing this, Carey departs significantly from previous editors (notably, Herbert J. C. Grierson, who uses the 1633 order). Yet “The Flea” remained the first poem in the sequence through all the major editions between 1635 and 1669; it can also be found first in editions of 1719, 1779, and 1793. (More can be done to study these editions, of course.) This poem clearly came to occupy a prominent position in Donne’s oeuvre, even through the eighteenth century. In each of these editions, one could find the “long s” in line three — at least, until the nineteenth century, when the character fell out of use.

Bach suggests that religious vocabularies of shame skew “The Flea” away from a lighthearted conceit or pseudo-argument and towards an Augustinian context (268-70), but this reading does not account for the typographical instability in line three that remains a small, but important element of this poem’s transmission history. Indeed, once Donne’s poem saw print, the “long s” simultaneously fixed and made possible interpretations of the poem that challenge Bach’s author-centric and compositional assessment. In fact, in the hands of a print audience, the first three lines emerge as a tercet that exhorts not only the beloved, but also the reader to pay attention to nuance, both to “Marke but this flea” and to “marke in this.” William Sherman has illustrated how material and how common the practice of “marking” in books was among Renaissance readers; the lengthy entry for “mark” in the OED also makes this clear. Repeated twice in the first line, this word hails a reader to consider something closely, but also to imagine if not engage in a particular form of textual practice with his or her own printed copy of Poems.

Taken in such a way, “this flea” stands not only as a fictional flea sucking the blood of the lover and beloved, but also as Donne’s poem clearly titled so. The meaning of “this” at the end of line 1 is obscure, although it could refer to the poem or to the conceits about to unfold. The second line, a bridge between the exhortation to “marke in this” and the typographical obscenity emerging in line three, accomplishes this task through its focused attention to the infinitesimal: “How little that which thou deny’st me is.” Paradoxically, the speaker here casts a spotlight on what is barely perceptible in order to emphasize its presence. This directs readers to the third line, which presents two instances of the “long s” – one for the speaker, one for the beloved. Straying away from authorial control on the text, this typographical deployment points simultaneously to “s” and “f,” to sucking and fucking, although the distinction between then — presumably as “little” as the deed that the beloved denies the speaker — has now been rendered visible to readers.

The consequences of this rather myopic reading involve an interpretational strategy that empowers the reader and invites appropriations of Donne’s verse according to alternative gendered paradigms. Typography makes this possible, and one may perceive related cases elsewhere in early modern literature (line 6 of the first poem in Richard Barnfield’s Cynthia stands as an example). Mintz regards this instability and its function in the poem as “a compelling example of Donne’s play with gender” through which “Donne manages to identify himself both with the female body and with a kind of ‘bisexualized’ erotic pleasure” (584-85). However, Bach’s thorough-going historical assessment of sex in Donne’s poetry and prose raises serious questions about such an interpretation, and would tend to support Docherty’s conclusions about “The Flea” instead. In order to disengage readerly possibilities from authorial intention, both of which are valid elements in any study of the poem, we might emphasize the histories of transmission that connect the two, and that supply or obscure typographical instabilities such as the “long s” that have been used to argue one way or another about Donne’s sexuality.

Thanks to Amy Nelson & Toby Altman. Images drawn from EEBO according to fair use.



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