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Featured Poem: The Bait by John Donne

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 30th May 2011

As it’s proved inviting and enthralling thus far, we shall stick with the ‘watery’ theme we’ve been exploring over the past few weeks – there’s still some more sights to see at sea (or in a lake, river or stream) and emotions to be stirred up before we sail to the shore. So far, we’ve observed the rough and unrelenting tides as well as, conversely, the fluid falling flows and pondered the effects two very distinct bodies of water have upon us. Although Herbert, through his elaborate metaphor, illustrated how we are at one with water – are part of it, living and re-living continuously as it does with its everlasting flow – we have yet to be really immersed in it. But now, courtesy of John Donne, we shall dive right in…

And so to partake in a water-based pleasure pursuit – one that’s a particularly familiar pastime on these shores: a spot of fishing (perhaps a few of us will be partaking this Bank Holiday…?). Yet what’s described by Donne is as far removed as you can get from a sedate and laidback fishing trip. As the master of metaphysical poetry Donne employs a quite unusual, inventive but really quite illuminating metaphor at the core, using the tools and imagery of fishing to stand for the pursuit of love – or perhaps, more appropriately, lust. Everything about the poem teems with sensuality – a typical feature of Donne’s work – enhanced significantly by the water which has an emphatic energy that only bolsters the erotic charge; note how the river whispers – a seductive method of speaking if there ever was one. Then there’s the warmth emanated by the nymph-like female submerged in the depths – stronger than that of the sun – the amorous, enamour’d fish attracted like a magnet to her and the opulent textures (the golden sands, crystal brooks, silken lines and silver hooks) – quite literally, we are bathing in sexuality. As Herbert – another of the metaphysical poets – did with The Waterfall, Donne places corporeal life within the water and though incredibly different - Herbert’s pure spirituality clashing somewhat with Donne’s invigorated sensuality - both portrayals indicate powerful and profound experiences.

The Bait was conceived as a slightly sceptical retort to Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, following another reply to Marlowe’s picture of pastoral and perfect romantic delight; The Nymph’s Reply to The Shepherd by Sir Walter Raleigh (a former Featured Poem). Not only does the use of the sexually-forward fishing-related metaphor stand in stark contradiction to the delicate, flowery descriptions of Marlowe but there’s also an intrinsic contradiction created by Donne within the poem itself; the tone shifts significantly halfway through when the ‘bait’ achieves its desired effect and catches the one that was desiring. It is at that point, happening almost too swiftly to notice, that the enchanting, alluring appearance dissolves and a more suffocating reality comes into play; words that envisage violence, aggression and possession seeping through, consuming and quashing passion like a deluge of freezing cold water. It turns out that this strange metaphysical metaphor, seemingly completely alien to the subject of romance, is actually far more accurate than could be imagined, offering a less idealistic view of love with all its pushes, pulls and struggles, fights for domination and taming into submission. As with fishing, the chase for pleasure is generally weighted towards one party, with the shift in power turning as quickly as the tides that the fish that have thus far eluded capture swim against.

The Bait

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.

There will the river whispering run
Warm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there th'enamour'd fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.

When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.

If thou, to be so seen, be'st loth,
By sun or moon, thou darken'st both,
And if myself have leave to see,
I need not their light, having thee.

Let others freeze with angling reeds,
And cut their legs with shells and weeds,
Or treacherously poor fish beset,
With strangling snare, or windowy net.

Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest;
Or curious traitors, sleave-silk flies,
Bewitch poor fishes' wand'ring eyes.

For thee, thou need'st no such deceit,
For thou thyself art thine own bait:
That fish, that is not catch'd thereby,
Alas, is wiser far than I.

John Donne (1572-1631)

1 thought on “Featured Poem: The Bait by John Donne

[…] ‘huge seaworms’ – a gentle giant if there ever was one. The Kraken reverses what happens in The Bait; as Donne reached his conclusion, the energy possessed by the frantic fish petered out as they […]

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