The Poem

“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...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Forms and Devices

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 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...

(The entire section is 562 words.)