Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)