FEBRUARY
2008

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

02-28-2008

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Adoration of Fleas in Poetic Renderings


Fleas might not seem like an insect that would attract the attention of poets. After all, fleas are small and hard to see. Fleas also feed on blood and, consequently, are major pests of animals, including humans. Not the kind of attributes likely to induce a poet to spill ink in metered adoration. Nonetheless, fleas have, over the years, managed to sneak into a poem or two.

Fleas are worldwide in distribution, and several species have an intimate association with humans. This means that historically the flea has probably been one of the most-recognized insects in the world. Poetic efforts incorporating fleas were, no doubt, preceded by the appearance of fleas in sayings, proverbs and folklore. Most of such references have to do with the size of fleas or their pest nature.

The small size of a flea is the key to the following sayings. "An elephant does not feel a flea bite." "Even a flea can bite." "The brave flea dares to eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion." "The earth does not shake when the flea coughs."

The biting behavior of the flea and the consequent undesirability of infestations of these insects give meaning to these sayings. "Those who sleep with dogs get up with fleas." "The death throes of an elephant are not so annoying as a living flea." "The fatter the flea, the leaner the dog," or in this version: "The skinnier the dog, the more fleas he has."

Both the size and the pest nature of fleas are combined in a quote from Marian Wright Edelman, the president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund. She said, "You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation."

So how have fleas been incorporated into poetry? No one really knows when the first flea showed up in a poem. But, one of the early flea poems, which some believe was written by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD), was described as a widely popular, ribald Latin poem on fleas. Apparently, the poem was a trendsetter for fleas and sexual innuendo, because a number of poems from medieval times follow that general theme.

In France, a series of poems known as "La Puce de Madame Des Roches" resulted when the lawyer Pasquier encountered Catherine Des Roches and claimed to have seen a flea on her bosom. That was in 1582. A few years later, metaphysical poet John Donne wrote "The Flea." This is probably the most famous flea poem of all time, and it describes the amorous intentions of the writer toward his lover.

Shakespeare did not jump on the flea bandwagon with the vigor of some of his contemporaries, but he does mention them in his works. And, certainly, he was influenced by the flea-borne plague that was rampant during his time.

Another oft-quoted bit of poetry involving fleas comes from the famous Irish poet Jonathan Swift, who was the author of "Gulliver's Travels." Swift wrote a poem called "On Poetry: A Rhapsody," in which he commented on some of the poetry issues of his time. In that long poem, Swift refers to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who notes that predator and prey relationships are common in nature. Swift uses that ecological fact as an analogy for ways that poets often relate to each other. According to Swift:
"So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus ever poet, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind:"

Scientists believe that fleas are some of the most modern of all types of insects. In general, it is thought that fleas first fed on other animals before adapting to feed on humans. It is also assumed that humans have always been pestered by fleas.

Ogden Nash was another poet who wrote a poem about fleas. His poem, "Fleas," makes the point that humans have had fleas as long as we have existed. The poem "Adam had'em" is the world's shortest poem. But if Adam was infested -- and the medieval poets were correct -- apparently, so was Eve!

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox