The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

“The Bait,” a seven-stanza, twenty-eight-line invitatory, reveals its indebtedness to Christopher Marlowe in its first line, which imitates the opening of Marlowe’s “Passionate shepherd to his love.” Moreover, the general construction of John Donne’s poem—four lines of two pairs of rhymed couplets, or quatrains, with the exception of an added stanza—is not, at first glance, unlike that of the earlier poem, in which a would-be lover entices his beloved by calling up scenes of exquisite bliss. Before and after Donne, this type of poem found a wide audience. Before Donne, there was a unity between purpose and technique, and the voice of the importunate lover combined flattery with pleading. Donne, however, broke with this pattern; one has only to listen to “The Bait” (a title whose meaning deliberately contains ominous overtones) to hear a lover’s voice by turns wily, suggestive, flattering, almost threatening, and ultimately rueful. Further, the abrupt changes in mood and tone coalesce to impart a characteristically rough sense of urgency found in much of Donne’s work.

The poem begins conventionally enough, with pretty images and compliments. The sands, brooks, river, and sun, the lovely eyes of the beloved, are familiar territory. The mood shift in the third quatrain catches the reader unprepared; the beautiful beloved is now (apparently unclothed) swimming in “live” water, sought eagerly, even passionately, by the hitherto quiescent fish. Should this intimacy intimidate the lover, she is reminded that her own brilliance outshines both sun and moon and that thus neither gives its light to the proceedings. Significantly, the lover is at home in the darkness. In the fourth and fifth stanzas, the lover ostensibly establishes the superiority of his own type of “fishing” to the methods of his colleagues or competition, whose techniques vary from brute force, “the bedded fish in banks out-wrest,” to the false and fatal promises held out by the “sleavesilk flies.” This introduction of the specters of violence and treachery is only partially dissipated by the return to amorousness in the concluding verse, in which the speaker acknowledges that, ironically, it is he who has surrendered to the attractions of his purported prey.

The reader is challenged to discern who is fish, who is fishing, and who catches whom, all of which is bound to cause some confusion. Furthermore, the manifold sudden changes of emotional gear, all the more startling for being so economically presented, form an integral part of Donne’s technique and account for, at least in part, the fascination with which he is regarded by readers more than 350 years after his death.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

The Marlowe poem consisted of six quatrains; by adding a seventh, Donne brings the line total to twenty-eight, or twice fourteen (the length of a sonnet). Donne, in the interests of parodying Marlowe, chooses not to utilize sonnet form, but he has demonstrated to his contemporaries that the choice is his, and in choosing he has established a distinction between speaker and poet. The speaker is the captive of his desires; the poet weighs every word and leaves a bread-crumb trail through the poem so that the discerning reader might appreciate the subtleties of technique.

The element that most stands out in Donne’s poetry is his intelligence—not even his passion or his wit can equal it. His dazzling manipulations of syntax, his juxtapositions of unlikely images, are as calculated as they are effective. Tracing Donne’s intent in his poetry is a bit like watching a hunting cheetah spin and seemingly reverse direction. It takes some concentration to pursue “Begging themselves [the fish] they may betray” to achieve Donne’s...

(This entire section contains 562 words.)

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meaning, that the fish seek to be caught. The reader’s deepening involvement with the text is further challenged by the pivotal third quatrain, which couples the languor of the bath with the eroticism of underwater pursuit and capture. Soon Donne moves from flattery to a hint of indirect but threatening force. Images such as “cut legs,” “coarse bold hands,” “slimy nest,” and “curious traitors” would be jangling and discordant in a conventional love poem, but they work well here to establish Donne’s emotional detachment from and, to some degree, cynicism about the process in which he is engaged. Even when the body is most needy and the passions most persuasive, the speaker wants his audience to admire his intellectual sophistication and his innovative mastery of form.

A reader in Donne’s own times would have marked the many “conceits” that operate in the poem. These images and manifestations of design would conspire to create a bond between poet and reader. This becomes clear as one recalls the lack of complexity in Marlowe’s poem; by loading his poem with ironic ambiguities, Donne assumes the willingness of his reader to be challenged and stimulated. The reader who correctly decodes Donne is intrigued and flattered, ready to draw inferences from every departure from the norm.

Donne certainly did not invent the love lyric; in this poem, for example, Donne assumes that the reader is familiar with Marlowe’s earlier work. Donne’s genius lies in his ability to take what was current and transcend it, changing its form while he ostensibly conforms to it. One can trace this pattern in his satires, his sermons, and his invocations to lovers.

In fact, the speaker never uses the word “love.” If the hearer, or for that matter, the reader, thinks that the poem is about love, the speaker—and the poet—are not to be held accountable, even when the last stanza ruefully, even reluctantly, returns to the conventional image of the enthralled suitor. Very few poets have been as able as Donne to calibrate the differences between love and lust; here he and his speaker are as one. Both know perfectly well that the driving force in “The Bait” has to do with a hoped for physical union in which the absence of spiritual commitment is clear and not without meaning.