The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)