This is 'The Flea' by John Donne:

  Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st 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.

  Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
When 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 honor, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

Is that slick or is that slick? It isn't the urgent arguments against maidenhood that impress me; that was a recurring theme and Marvell, say, does it better. No, what really excites my admiration is his managing to turn a flea into an opportunity to be romantic. A flea has jumped from him onto her and he has got away with it. Not merely saved face, but almost certainly scored right there.

I know nothing of how the poem came to be written but it must have been based on a real incident. I've always liked to think that he'd actually got her back to his house, maybe to the bedroom, and then all of a sudden -

SHE: Eek! A flea! You slob! I'm leaving!
HE (aside, biting knuckle): Think quickly, Johnny. - Perceive, Madam, how cloistered within these living walls of jet our blood is already mingled and married.
SHE (softening, regarding flea adoringly): Awwp, how sweet, bless.
HE (preening): Christ I'm slick.

I suppose, actually, in Donne's era they may have been less squeamish about fleas than we are today - but even so, pretty damn smooth, I think you will agree. And I am envious and have often wished I had that facility for a snappy and lyrical face-saver. While it would particularly come in handy at the start of a romance, these days when women are perhaps easier to catch but harder to keep than in Donne's time it would be valuable at any stage of a relationship. Anyway here are some examples of how a young man anxious to impress might be able to compensate for and even capitalize on evidence of slobbery had he but Donne's gift for a quick and moving come-back.

Oafish-bachelor face-saving poetry after the manner of Donne's 'The Flea'

On some toenail clippings noticed on the carpet

Behold these scattered toenail shards
Like fragments of some fallen moon
How should I throw these away, how discard
What once partook of her blessed boon?
For I've held her, and they were part of me
They are made divine as I'm made by she
These strangely poignant nacreous crescents
Are sacred relics that knew her presence
They were still strong attached to me, I ween
When I played at walking where her feet had been
Nothing that has stood in her foot-fall
Should ever see inside of bin at all

Yet stay... another thought doth now occur
I'll endeavour to impart to her
Once these did seem integral to me
Indivisible part of all I be
Yet sev'ring them I felt no loss nor pain
And would not for worlds have them back again
Be it not the same with things comparable
With which foolish mortals to part are loath?
Were't not best be rid of (heed my parable)
A brassiere, say, or a hymen, troth?

To a cockroach

Ho there, little ebon scuttling chum!
Come meet she, of whom oft I have sung
Many a time did thy chitinous ear
Lists and litanies of her graces hear
My counsellor in love, my sole condoler
How squash now my former consoler?

Perceive he is now our chaperone:
Remove we him and the tattle-tongues shall moan
Better a hundred bugs make this their palace
Than expose my lady's name to malice

Should we widow his wives, orphan his
Offspring cockroach colonies?
Shame I cry! A model father he
Industrious in love as I'd fain be
I'd beget as many sprigs on thee
And bring you lots to eat for tea
See how he carries morsel big as his head
Even thus I'll keep you plump and fed

A romantic sight, thinkst not thou?
This can be our cockroach now

On some biscuit crumbs found in the bed

Observe, my dame, how these humble crumbs
Have been shared in turn by both our bums
Adhering now to your scrumptious pelvis
After sounding out mine own dark crevice
Even so tenderly shall I cling to you
Naught can ever now divide we two:
Joined and anointed by grease and flour
We are biscuit-crumb-bum-siblings from this hour
(See: I eat the ones that have been on yours, oh yum)

Feed me kisses, stop my mouth with love's own sweets
And I'll no longer sully our nuptial sheets
And give up Hobnobs, aye, even Jacob's Clubs
Let me nibble instead on your darling bubs

On the discovery of sundry naughty lithographs in my possession

Start not, dear lady, nor arch a brow
I was throwing them out soon anyhow
By these did I find thee beyond compare
By checking against other ladies bare

There's no manual for love, but these come close
(My father's hints were vague and verbose)
Eros' student, I sought to learn how to please
Canst put thy foot behind thy head like these?

To my overflowing laundry basket

How shall I wash the sweaty socks
Damp from the fear she loved me not?

How shall I wash the staine'd shirt
I wore when she with me did flirt?

How shall I rinse the trousers soiled
When premature my passion boiled?

Our love's history's writ within this casket
(Admit it's refined to even have a basket)

To a toadstool growing in my bathroom

Proud, tall, erect, and slender of neck
You remind me of my sov'reign mistress
Many a sigh did I sigh over thee
Many a tear didst shed in my distress
How uproot thee, how lop off thy tender head
When you were my only picture of she?

Let us gaze and muse upon this fungus
And lessons learn we may profit by
From a damp dank birth it hath grown humungous
Burgeoning forth to tower on high
Even so shall our own sweet love bloom
From beginnings small and tentative
You can, if you want, destroy this mushroom:
I am far too sensitive.

To the unwashed dishes in my kitchen sink

You teeter mountainous towards the sky
Thou prodigious heap of crockery unclean
Reminding me daily of the heights that I
Must scale to be worthy of my queen
The bowl atop by sauces stained
And crowned by sprig of soggy broccoli
Did seem to mine poetic eye the picture of
Some shady grot with o'erhanging tree
Where we might shelter and spoon when we'd attained
The sunlit uplands of our love

A sentimental fool, two spoons I placed
Side by side in this china glade
Formed to fit and the other embrace
As close as I'd cling to my own true maid

The vista made was too bonny to kill
When anon I'd venture the tap to turn
It seemed a waterfall or mountain rill
I dreamed us splashing through this pure clear burn

Now she's come, I could clear thee away - but stay!
Think how pretty the picture would be
If her dainty hand should clean thee for me!
Is there aught in nature as fair to behold
As a nymph decked only in marigolds?

25th November 2010