Very few of Donne’s poems were published in his lifetime, although hand-written copies enjoyed a wide readership. What appealed to his contemporaries was his open treatment of seduction, expressed typically through the voice of a would-be seducer. One can conjecture at length, and many critics have, as to how much his poetry mirrors Donne’s direct experience and how much of it is an exaggeration of both his prowess and his stamina. Donne studied the ways of the court, the intricacies of the law, the controversies of religious disputation, and he uses and refers to them all in his poetry. Yet it would be a mistake to try to infer specifics about his self from the poetry; readers can see the connections that Donne allows them to see.
“The Bait,” like the well-known “The Flea,” is directed toward one end, the capitulation of a woman listener. She is the one who is to be overcome “with silken lines, and silver hooks.” She is bombarded with language, and if she should have modest, if perhaps unlikely, second thoughts, she is assured that the lover who sees her surrender has already testified to the strength of his feelings, such as they are, for her. She is played, like a fish; dangling before her are all the protestations of the speaker, in which the reader may choose to place limited faith.
The speaker, in the last stanza, claims that it is he who has been unable to resist the pull of her allure; she is fisher, he fish. This may express Donne’s considered opinion on the sport—that one should not engage in it if one is not willing to be caught. On the other hand, the reader may well dismiss this as another of the speaker’s gambits; the speaker is certainly clever enough to manipulate his lover’s feelings by appealing to her pity. The end result in either case, however, is a constant: She is to yield, he to triumph.
That this is the work of a man who later became known for his sermons as well as for his poetry, and that his poetry itself later underwent a radical reconfiguration of theme, seems unlikely if not preposterous as one reads “The Bait.” Both the frank sensuality and the tour de force technique catch and hold the attention of the reader. To admirers of Donne’s religious poetry and prose, “The Bait” may seem like a prodigal wasting of talent—but Donne, as his later life proved, always knew about prodigals.
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