Published in 1633, after John Donne’s death, “The Flea” belongs to Donne’s collection of blatantly chauvinistic sexual texts. Ostensibly aimed at convincing a female partner to bed with the him, Donne’s speaker argues that his and the woman’s blood, “mingled” within a flea, sets precedence for and justifies their would-be copulation (4). Within the ridicule of such antecedent logic are aspects of Donne’s captious attitude toward Jesuit casuistry—of which such case-divinity was an identifying mark—as well as his Anglican casuist concern for conscience and moral agency (Malloch 58, Slights 93). Yet, so leveled an effort belies Donne’s self-warring poetics, for “The Flea” carries also his corruption of the Catholic sacrament of marriage and, by extension, his discordant labor to desert the Catholic basis for attaining grace through sacraments. Donne’s casuist speaker appropriates the act of marriage and subverts it, reducing the consecrated to something secular, profane, and blasphemous. To slough away the faith in which he was raised, Donne must dismantle it. At the same time, he seems conflicted by the blasphemy of his verse, by the protection that in 17th century England abdication of Catholicism afforded. Donne’s deeply Catholic awareness of innate sin bristles in confrontation with an emergent Calvinist belief in salvation not secured by virtues. The result insinuates Donne’s own martyrdom by the very sacrament he subverts. Donne’s speaker equates the marriage sacrament with an insect to be crushed; placing himself and his lover in its carapace, he conceives his own demise while effacing the sacrament’s sanctity and forcing it to facilitate a “sacrilege, three sins in killing three” (18). And while Donne’s rejection of martyrdom as a means for redemption—developed fully in his prose Pseudo-martyr—manifests a sarcastic martyrdom of his speaker, the cross of Donne’s apostasy weighs upon the suicidal act that he envisions. Such contradiction pulls away the substance of Donne’s Catholicism so to both punish the apostate and make room for the arriving Protestant. “The Flea,” then, represents not just Donne’s external hostilities toward a Catholic doctrine, but the tumultuous religious struggle, internal and intemperate, of the ceding Catholic at odds with his apostasy.
Donne’s tempestuous conceptions of the Roman casuist doctrine find their analogue in the unstable place to which he assigns reason in his poems. During the Reform, Catholic priests, ascribing to a doctrine of case divinity, argued for circumstantial morality, decided by both canonical study and the survey of preceding cases of like circumstance. To judge right action—or assign right penance—Catholic priests weighed not just scripture but the published body of adjudicated cases to which they had access. Donne and the Anglican casuists, however, sought a more universal application of moral directives, a sort of Kantian methodology that placed the locus of moral agency in one’s conscience. Because, as critic John Carey writes, Donne nurtures a strong “distrust of all established dogmas,” and because, as Donne himself makes clear in Essays on Divinity, he loathes “stupid and lazy inconsideration,” questions of right action must necessarily be answered with self-scrutiny and a skeptical eye toward scripture (222; qtd in Carey 229). To yield such agency to dogma and to settled cases separated the moral self from the moral act (Malloch 67). That separation implied that right action could gainsay examined moral sensibility, which in Donne’s Anglican casuist principle was itself a sin (Slights 93). Unstudied faith, which could be justified by the Roman casuistic method, would have been immensely unsettling for Donne given his flight from Catholicism and its redemptive view of willful acts. On the other hand, Donne’s acceptance of a Calvinist faith, with its ideology of predestination, runs afoul of his insistence that ration and agency are the locus of moral action.
Donne’s poems, therefore, come to frame the landscape of his attenuating hold on reason within a developing but inconsistent Calvinist faith. Indeed, Donne’s speaker in “The Flea” makes a patently Roman casuistic argument that his and the woman’s blood, “mingled” inside the flea, is neither “sin nor shame,” so, outside of the flea, the two people will be equally innocent if mingling themselves sexually (4, 6). That the flea “enjoys before it woo” proves to Donne’s speaker that the rewards for his argumentative toil in fact precede his work in winning them, that his case has already been decided (7, emphasis added). The speaker’s effort to determine right action from the circumstance of the flea—in whom he and the woman “almost, nay more than married are”—mocks the efforts of case divinity by likening the dogma on which it depends to a parasitic insect (10). Donne’s casuist lines, however, become accessory to those surrounding them, wherein the speaker appeals, almost pathetically, to the woman’s conscience: “Oh stay,” he pleads, “three lives in one flea spare,” for to kill the flea is really to kill the speaker and the woman also (9). By warning the woman against “self-murder” and “sacrilege,” the speaker emulates Donne’s worry that reason and will still shape redemption despite their impotence in the Calvinist faith (17, 18). But if right action, determined by reasoned introspection, still effects, for Donne, even the semblance of salvation, then his ebbing faithfulness to Catholicism renders an irreconcilable religious crisis.
A casual reading of “The Flea” arouses the image of an amorous man stringing together a fervidly ingenious argument to win the sexual consent of a woman, but his argument is resonant with the pains of Donne’s infidelity to his former Catholic faith. Donne’s coupling of bloods within the flea enacts a marriage between the two people, which will come to be destroyed by the woman. The “one blood,” which together the two constitute, is suggestive of an offspring, an image only strengthened as the flea “swells” (8). “Pampered,” literally swollen, the flea is pregnant “with one blood made of two” (8). While the previous line parrots, or perhaps parodies, a wedding vow, Donne’s woman, invested with his perfidy but not his guilt, assumes Donne’s inconstancy and effects the ruin of her and the speaker’s admittedly dubious marriage. In the poem, then, the woman burdens the sin for which the apostate Donne is culpable. Carey’s suspicion that Donne seeks the “healing distortion” of his fictive verse by detaching “the subject from the religious sphere” is faithful only to the most literal degree, for Donne’s verse is haunted even here by his religious agitation. That it is no “sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,” this marriage which the flea has consecrated, unmistakably recalls the virgin Mary and the virgin birth of Christ (6). The “nail” by which the flea is killed, several lines further, is “purpled” by that same Christ-like blood (20). In transferring his infidelity to the women of his poems, Donne composes an expedient means through which to express the more disgraceful turns of his apostasy; the “The Flea” provides a lucid, if decidedly vulgar, example. For all its unambiguous sexuality, though, “The Flea,” as in much of his love poetry, is laded by Donne’s religious disloyalties, at best only flippantly disguised by a profane sexuality before he consigns them to a fictitious woman.
If Donne’s verse betrays his religious angst by projecting his own apostasy onto women and pleading their fidelity, as Carey suggests, “The Flea” exposes equally a tendency toward subversion of the Catholic faith from which Donne, ultimately, finds escape (25). Among the defining contentions of Anglican Calvinism was the notion that Christ died to redeem only those elected to salvation, not humanity at large, and that grace is conferred by faith alone, not by a prescribed schedule of religious acts (Parry 186). For Catholics, these acts include the seven sacraments, one of which is marriage. Calvinist Christianity made little room for acts, so in an effort, perhaps, to erode the Catholic basis for salvation through deeds, Donne extracts their meaning and saturates them with temporal and base replacements: “This flea is you and I, and this / Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is” (12, 13). The purported argument is that, because “in this flea our two bloods mingled be,” the speaker and his would-be mate are as good as married already, so she may as well “yield’st to” him (4, 26). The effect of the lines above, however, is to desecrate through metaphor the sacrament of marriage, to reduce its religious denotation until it barely glances its meanings, while preserving its connotations by a sort of blasphemous deconstruction.
Donne’s treatment of blood in “The Flea” evokes, again, religiously charged connotations, partaking in a thinly veiled blasphemy that culminates in the flea’s death at the woman’s hand. For Donne, blood becomes the mark of an unsettled faith, and grace, an inconsequential irony: “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, / How little that which thou deniest me is” (1, 2). Within the flea lies salvation in both the marriage sacrament and in the immanent death, or release, of those inside. For the speaker, however, both the sacrament and the promise of salvation seem so insignificant as to render their denial paltry, betraying Donne’s discomfort with a concept of grace in which efforts for redemption seem irrelevant. As Carey observes, Donne’s religious anxieties confess his growing disbelief in laboring for grace (42). For the Catholic, salvation was withheld in the absence of sacraments. By birth alone, we are sinners, and through a strident program, starting with baptism and continuing through confirmation, displays of devotion and self-sacrifice form the locus of redemption; grace was something earned. For the Calvinist, grace was predetermined, and no amount of virtuous behavior would suffice to earn one’s salvation. Therefore, to settle with a Calvinist theology, Donne must grossly devalue the sacraments. He begins with marriage by imagining it a flea, but he reaches consummation by the flea’s Christ-like death. From the fragile body of the flea seeps “blood of innocence”—an image of the eucharistic wine—and the woman’s “Purpled…nail” draws a destroyed figure of Christ to punctuate the denial of sacraments and, indeed, of sacrifice altogether (20). Donne, therefore, copes with an unearnable grace by eroding the sacramental blood to fodder for an insect. By granting an insect the capacity both to consecrate a marriage and facilitate a sacrifice of innocent blood, and by allowing a seemingly innocent human to carry out the sacrifice, Donne can degrade the sacraments while salvaging the gravity of human will.
Blasphemy, then, represents Donne’s stand against religious strains, a dismantling of language that unmasks his efforts to escape Catholicism (Carey 27). Through his verse, Donne must separate the meanings from Catholic concepts of faith, grafting them to profane terms so his apostasy becomes merely a rejection of secular ideas. In the second stanza of “The Flea,” the speaker replaces the hard insect carapace with the walls of a religious building: “Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met, / And cloistered in these living walls of jet” (14, 15). “Cloistered” is a word so encumbered by religious connotation that its use all but places the speaker’s and the woman’s blood—and, thus, their bodies—within the protective confines of a religious institution (14, 15). Entered in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with reference to monastic housing, “cloistered” invokes the reverence and chastity required for the speaker’s argument. However, Donne robs the word of religious denotations by fixing it to a parasitic creature; it allows him, by the final stanza, to destroy that very institution beneath the woman’s thumb. Upon its destruction, the speaker asks, “Wherein could this flea guilty be,” a rhetorical question purloining Christ’s innocence and projecting it onto the flea (21). By allowing the woman to crush the flea, Donne undermines the sacramental institution for which it stands—“Our marriage bed, and marriage temple”—corrupting the very basis of the Christian faith to prove “how false, fears be” (13, 25). His rejection of one tenet of Catholicism erupts into a perversion of religion, an overturning of language that bares Donne’s religious uncertainty.
That Donne’s apostasy was, at best, arduously negotiated is manifest in the almost incoherent contradictions of “The Flea,” in particular, and in his love poems in general. His juxtaposition of the sexual with the sacrosanct offers, according to Carey, “a veil for [his] religious perturbations” (24). Not these juxtapositions alone, but the ideological inconsistencies of the text, reflect an impetuous struggle with religion. To the speaker, a flea seems strong enough to capacitate a marriage: “Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare / Where we almost, nay more than married are” (10, 11). Yet so insignificant is this institution that by the poem’s final stanza, once the flea is killed, “Just so much honor” has been stripped from its murderer by the act of killing; indeed, “this flea’s death took life,” but just a trace (26, 27). Donne’s speaker craves a marriage, albeit crudely, yet Donne embodies that marriage in the fragile shell of a parasitic and despised insect. Marriage becomes an object of desire conjoined with an object to be sought and destroyed, and the speaker’s almost sarcastic tone by these final lines points at Donne’s interpersonal and religious frustrations. Granting that the love poems, as Carey observes, offer glances at Donne’s concern with attaining fidelity in relationships, by conferring to a flea the responsibility of containing those relationships, Donne admits to a mistrust in both marriage and fidelity even if attained (24). If piety in marriage is friable, piety in a larger religious sense is even more so, and there is little reason to believe in its efficacy as a method to obtaining grace.
Indeed, Donne’s unstable religious loyalties issue, in part, from a seemingly ancestral zeal that delivered much of his lineage to a persecuted end. Less than a century before Donne, Henry VIII’s Treasons Act made insulting the king an executable offense; refusal to acknowledge any of the myriad Oaths or Acts, or to offer a plea when arraigned on so-called Catholic crimes, by 1530 could result in death (Valbuena 50). Thomas Heywood, Donne’s great uncle and a Catholic monk, was put to death in the 1560s for his religious alliance; Donne’s uncles Ellis and Jasper, both seminary priests, “were persecuted for their missionary activities,” Ellis dying a religious outlaw and Jasper succumbing to torture (Valbuena 50). Donne’s mother, great grand-niece of Catholic martyr Thomas More, married three times to Catholic men and lost the last husband to persecution; Donne’s brother, Henry, died in prison for harboring a Catholic priest (Valbuena 50). This heritage of martyrdom led Donne not just to question his Catholic faith but to suspect any outward allegiance that compromised one’s self-preservation, putting him at odds with his inheritance but also seeding in him, and thus in his poems, an allusive affinity for the grave.
Self-contradictory meditations of death branded not just Donne’s poetry but his sermons and political tracts as well, an insight which his friable, almost meandering views of martyrdom reveal. In Donne’s forward to Pseudo-Martyr he writes, almost wistfully: as a moral man, and as a Christian, “I have been ever kept awake in a meditation of Martyrdom, by being derived from such a flock and race” (1). Nevertheless, he lashes contemporary martyrs for “mis-applying” scripture, and the Jesuits especially for their “over-vehement affectations” (PM 11, 87). Likewise, the Pope—and so the Jesuits—promoted martyrdom as a viable means of redemption, which the Calvinist perspectives Donne was struggling to adopt denied along with the wholesale rejection of acts as a path to salvation (Valbuena 58). Donne’s castigations in Pseudo-Martyr, however, come not from any condemnation of Catholicism; to the contrary, his reproach proceeds from a practical concern for sparing one’s life by outwardly denouncing the faith so to preserve it inwardly. His pragmatic view throughout Pseudo-Martyr advocates clearly that Catholics take the king’s oath, thus denouncing their faith publicly; although, as scholar Camille Slights argues, Pseudo-Martyr supports a “mixed allegiance” wherein the professed “truth” is merely a matter of form to shield a separate “internal truth” (66). It is difficult, in this light, not to see Donne’s work in Pseudo-Martyr as indicative of his own religious anxieties. The very title of the tract evokes a symbolic death of the outward Catholic as a means to salvage one’s faith. Professor Donald Roberts supposes Donne’s condemnation of martyrdom is something of a condemnation of his family and himself, and that Donne’s art, in its attention to death, “[announces] his victory over it” (971). Yet, if anything, Donne’s politics uncover the rational work of his apostasy, while the poems confess his resignation that to preserve his own life he had to designate as misdeeds the familial descent of religious persecutions before him and the faith for which they died.
Hopelessness in life and in faith—sometimes fevered, sometimes cold—thus sustains in the poems the implicit note of Donne’s passivity toward death and its place within his pendent religious conviction. Just as Carey discerns in his other works, “The Flea” is resinous with Donne’s “thoughts of death, and unreasoned misgivings about the future,” which both sculpt and distort his concept of love requited; in his want for faith, religious or secular, Donne’s ideal poetic love is itself conjoined with death (244). What Donne’s speaker seeks in “The Flea” is love, and whether it is a carnal love or otherwise is indifferent to the fact that he observes the fulfillment of that love first in the extracted blood within a flea. Donne’s use of blood so early in the poem forecasts the violence of its later lines, to be sure, but the suggestion that love and death are here inseparable bears allusions to Donne’s worry about his own errancy. Further, if it is love the speaker desires, and love whose correlate he sees inside the flea already, then in marking “How little that which [the woman] deniest [him] is,” he desires a love which by his own observation lacks value (Donne 2). That the speaker seems to confuse the “mingled” blood for a marriage, and that a disturbed sort of family emerges as the flea “swells with one blood made of two,” recalls Donne’s enduring courtship of death alongside a mistrust of fidelity perhaps derived from his self-inscribed lack thereof (4, 8). Despite acknowledging that the woman’s “parents grudge” their marriage—a phrase which harbors memories of Donne’s suffered heritage—the speaker draws his analogy deeper, cloistering the woman and himself in “living walls of jet” (14, 15). The adjective “living” in this line is almost lost between the religiously weighted “cloister” and the sharp noun, “jet,” on which the line breaks, reverberating dark and funereal as the sentence ends (15). Situating these terms on a sort of balance, of which “living” is the fulcrum, Donne confides in the line the value he assigns to death on that scale by tipping it toward the word “jet,” defined in the OED as a semiprecious lignite, a dark marble, or the color imparted by either. Alone, the color connotes darkness and morbidity. In the following line—“Though use make you apt to kill me”—Donne dissolves the speaker into the flea itself, as “use” suggests both the speaker’s sexual exploitation and the flea’s consumption of blood (16). By associating them in this way, Donne both marries the speaker’s so-called love with his death and prepares the woman to be indicted for the speaker’s murder once she kills the flea in the final stanza. Like Donne, however, neither the woman nor the speaker are averse to death, and in it they “Find’st not” themselves “the weaker” (24). Donne’s nonchalance regarding death shoulders perhaps his acquiescence to the fated nature of the Calvinist doctrine, perhaps his cross for upbraiding the Catholic martyrs gone before him, perhaps both. His amalgams of death and love, given his consignment of the religious to the secular through the poems, tells all the more of Donne’s insecurities that either faith would afford salvation in the end.
A deep seeded cultivation of Catholicism, however, requires Donne to destroy a part of himself in order to fully unmarry the faith. Moreover, in apostasy from Catholicism, Donne avoids religious persecution and, thus, his hereditary call to martyrdom. Carey sees in the Holy Sonnets an inclination to compare “the agonies of the English Catholics with [Donne’s] own relative ease” (35). In “The Flea,” Donne’s guilt laces through the speaker’s infatuation with death. “Though use make you apt to kill me,” the speaker warns, “Let not to that self-murder added be” (Donne 16, 17). Yet Donne knows well the flea will be crushed—and the speaker and subject with it—for in the next stanza, “Cruel and sudden,” the woman carries out the murder-suicide despite the speaker’s earlier plea to “spare” the “three lives in one flea” (10, 17). “Mingling” in the flea was the speaker’s and the woman’s blood—living, as it were, until the woman “triumph’st” (4, 23). Assuming the speaker is Donne’s persona, placing him in the doomed body of the flea suggests Donne’s suicide and reflects his clutching at a martyrdom unattainable in apostasy. Manifest by the complicatedly pessimistic collection of individuals in “The Flea” is, as Roberts marks elsewhere in Donne’s writing, a “feverish mood” concerning desire unfulfilled and a nearness to “surrender” antithetic to Donne’s political and philosophical esteem for self-preservation (971). Filling the insect with human blood, Donne flushes the conceit with death and lays bare his “morbid absorption with…the grave,” certainly; but, abreast of his grim preoccupation, or perhaps emblematic of it, is Donne’s onus to destroy the intransigent threads of Catholic faith from which his disquiet hung. The killing of the three, the flea and its two occupants, then, instantiates Donne’s own religious undoing through the speaker in his verse. That the flea represents a marriage union, and that Donne seems fixated on attaining fidelity throughout his love poems, together allude to a desire for “self-murder” once the flea’s death is realized, but it is self-murder aimed only at certain more troubling inconsistencies of his faith (17).
More than a vehicle to effect Donne’s metaphorical death and disgrace the marriage sacrament, the flea signals Donne’s inability to shed fully the Catholic need for absolution through sacraments. To consider the blood-sated flea a figure for Donne’s martyrdom—martyrdom, at least, of his Catholic theology—is to expose as well the intractable Catholic influence in Donne’s developing Calvinist vision. Author Graham Parry notes that belief in one’s salvation predicated a devout Calvinist faith because the faith centered on a “doctrine of predestination;” thus, the heedful 17th century Calvinist “scrutinized his life for signs of favour or disfavour” (81, 83). Scrutinizing the woman, or perhaps himself, Donne’s speaker “[Marks] but this flea,” which has drawn their blood (1). He suggests “this cannot be said / A sin, nor shame,” but a flea’s mere presence on their bodies alludes to impurity in the speaker and subject as much as it echoes Donne’s profound concern with sin and his “hope for grace given not for any personal merit” (Parry 187). Both the speaker and the woman bear the inherent “Mark” of the born Catholic, but in the flea their blood is “innocent” (Donne 1, 20). Donne’s salvation in Catholicism hangs on forgiveness of his sins, conferred in light of his behavior; nonetheless, when his speaker asks “Wherein could this flea guilty be / Except in that drop which it sucked from thee,” Donne bares aversion to a Catholic doctrine of grace by depicting the flea as innocence incarnate, as worthy of salvation despite its actions (21, 22). In the final lines, the speaker’s ruse to woo the woman by dissuading her from destroying the flea, and thus their “marriage bed,” falls away, and he reassures her “how false, fears be,” how her “sacrilege” cost no honor (13, 18, 25). While Donne presses strongly for the efficacy of human will and reason, Calvin’s teaching that god fated, before creation, “certain men to salvation and others to eternal damnation” creates for Donne an inexorable contest into which his roots in Catholicism only fetter him more staunchly (Carey 225). Donne’s suggestion that the flea, the woman who murdered it, and the licentious speaker all deserve salvation affords him the reassurance needed to consider the Calvinist doctrine more comfortably given his doubts as a sinner, even as “The Flea” remains a gravely conflicted channel through which to negotiate grace.
Donne’s oscillating views of salvation, and the means by which it is granted, filter through the image of a flea both containing a Catholic sacrament and acquiring a seemingly unearned innocence. A Calvinist theological doctrine of predestination required of the faithful a fundamental belief that one was among those elected for salvation, and a parasitic flea, in 17th century theological and philosophical thought, would have been far too distant down the Great Chain of Being to warrant the salvation Donne’s speaker suggests it deserves. Twice in the second stanza—“three lives in one flea spare,” and “three sins in killing three”—the speaker elevates the flea to human-like worth, and the Christ-like image invoked upon its death, the “blood of innocence” it spills, reinforces the flea’s newly acquired status (10, 18, 20). Nonetheless, the hierarchical insignificance of the flea remains conspicuous and only leaks Donne’s troubled view of predestination. Moreover, as the flea becomes a sort of casket for the people it contains, it harbors with them Donne’s more critical attitudes about a grace unearned. Parry credits the “fundamental affirmation of the doctrine of predestination,” a universal belief among Calvinists, for annealing the Church of England in its 17th century crisis (183). For Donne, this tenet of Limited Atonement, the notion that a chosen few would be brought “to everlasting salvation, as vessels of honor,” seems brittle and veers sharply from his image of two unnamed people perishing in the belly of a flea (qtd. in Parry 185). It must be recognized, though, that Donne’s poetry was ever a contradiction of itself and of its author, so while his zoomorphism of a vessel to salvation seems critical of the Calvinist doctrine, it is at the same time impugning Roman casuist case divinity and the Jesuit penchant for martyrdom (Malloch 75). Nevertheless, that Donne’s speaker maintains the innocence of the flea, and its seemingly martyred inhabitants, challenges the doctrine of Limited Atonement and reflects Donne’s ever-present anxieties about sin and about his own merit in a system void of will.
Contradiction and religious angst, confessed in the proclaimed innocence of a wanton man and murderous woman, materialized in the swollen worth of an amoral and ignoble flea, are thus defining marks of Donne’s poem. While “The Flea” betrays a more overtly sexual desire than other works of his collection, it nevertheless invokes the tumult of Donne’s struggle with Catholicism. Centrally, “The Flea” subverts the holy sacrament of marriage; as a consequence, the poem disintegrates the language of the faith and reconstitutes it with secular aims. Donne replaces religious denotations in the effort to justify apostasy, but his religiously burdened words hold fast their connotations and aid his abdication of the faith. He secularizes the language to make its profane usage only tacitly blasphemous. Blasphemy becomes a tool for criticizing his own beliefs: their degradation makes more palatable his inconstancy. Yet Donne also overturns the logic of a casuist doctrine he sees as overzealous, as productive of sin in both its disregard for conscious consideration and its almost enthusiastic endorsement of martyrdom. His intimate relationship with sin, as in so much of his work, seeps into “The Flea” as its tireless overtone of death, and whether Donne approaches death or recoils from it only couches his pervasive guilt. Never does the threat of sin, nor the impact of human will, fully relinquish their hold on Donne’s theological acumen. His ever-present struggle finds its destination in guilt and in suicide. Donne’s questions find their origin in the fragile institution of grace by fidelity, precariously mingled in the shell of “The Flea.”
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