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John Donne's "The Bait"

Updated on June 25, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Donne

Source

Introduction and Text of "The Bait"

John Donne's "The Bait" is one of many replies to Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." One of the most famous such "replies" is Sir Walter Ralegh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd."

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 the '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 dark'nest 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, sleeve-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.

Reading of "The Bait"

John Donne

Source

Commentary

This poem parodies Marlowe's famous love poem, as it provides the characteristic Donnean passionate plea to win the love of his lady.

First Stanza: Embellishing a River Scene

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.

Donne's first line is a word for word copy of Marlowe's, and the second line varies by only two words. And while Marlowe's shepherd concentrates on the "hills and valleys, dale and field," Donne's speaker chooses to metaphorically create his scene with fish in "crystal brooks."

Donne's speaker, however, embellishes his river/fish scene transforming the sand into gold and fishing equipment into "silken lines and silver hooks." Just as Marlowe's shepherd fashions a glowing, beautiful life to allure his love, Donne's speaker also has some temptations to offer the target of his affection.

Second Stanza: Warming the Water

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

Donne's speaker glorifies his lady by giving her the power to warm the "whisp'ring river" with her eyes. He further embellishes her power by asserting that the fish will be enamored by her.

The speaker asserts that those fish will be so taken with her that they will betray their own safety by begging to remain close to her.

Third Stanza: Enamored Fish

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.

When the speaker's lady goes swimming among those fish, they will "amorously to thee swim." Those enamored fish will be more interested in catching the speaker's lady than the lady will be in catching them.

Fourth Stanza: She is Light Itself

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

If the lady prefers not to be seen in the sunlight or moonlight, such would be understandable because she is light itself and compared to her, both sun and moon remain dark.

The speaker's exaggeration continues as he claims that if he needs any light to see, he would not need the sun and moon because he has this glorious, light-reflecting woman.

Fifth Stanza / Sixth Stanza: A Lover's Delusion

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, sleeve-silk flies,
Bewitch poor fishes' wand'ring eyes

The speaker then turns from his metaphor making, announcing that he will "Let others freeze with angling reeds / And cut their legs with shells and weeds." He will "Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest / The bedded fish in banks out-wrest."

In both stanzas five and six, the speaker describes the real world of fish in rivers or brooks and those who go fishing "treacherously poor fish beset / With strangling snare, or windowy net."

The speaker makes it clear that the fantasy world of fish pursuing a beautiful lady in a crystal brook and a river warmed solely by the lady's eye is just a lover's delusion.

Seventh Stanza: No Need for Exaggeration

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.

Not needing to exaggerate his lover's attraction, the speaker asserts, "For thee, thou need'st no such deceit." She does not require little lies or big exaggerations to make her the perfect woman she is. The truth is all that needs to be told about this speaker's lover because "thou thyself art thine own bait."

She is the attraction, and if any other swain is not caught by her beauty, then the speaker declares that man is "wiser far than" the speaker is. He declares himself thus caught by the lady and therefore, there is no need to embellish as Marlowe's shepherd had done in pursuit of his love.

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

Source

Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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