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The Bait -- John Donne

Guest poem submitted by David Wright:
(Poem #1002) The Bait
 Come live with me, and be my love,
 And we will some new pleasures prove
 Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
 With silken lines, and silver hooks.

 There will the river whispering run
 Warm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun;
 And there th'enamour'd fish will stay,
 Begging themselves they may betray.

 When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
 Each fish, which every channel hath,
 Will amorously to thee swim,
 Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.

 If thou, to be so seen, be'st loth,
 By sun or moon, thou darken'st both,
 And if myself have leave to see,
 I need not their light, having thee.

 Let others freeze with angling reeds,
 And cut their legs with shells and weeds,
 Or treacherously poor fish beset,
 With strangling snare, or windowy net.

 Let coarse bold hands from slimy nest
 The bedded fish in banks out-wrest;
 Or curious traitors, sleave-silk flies,
 Bewitch poor fishes' wand'ring eyes.

 For thee, thou need'st no such deceit,
 For thou thyself art thine own bait:
 That fish, that is not catch'd thereby,
 Alas, is wiser far than I.
-- John Donne
 John Donne takes the conceit in an entirely different direction  - this
fast & loose & frisky invitation to go skinny-dipping in the river, etc., -
a much more enticing invitation than that of Marlowe's shepherd, if you ask
me. I've always thought Donne, or the early Donne anyway, is the sexiest of
poets. The juiciest of all is that poem on his mistress going to bed, the
one with the lines -

 License my roving hands, and let them go
 Before, behind, between, above, below.
 O, my America, my new found land,
 My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
 My mine of precious stones, my empery;
 How blest am I in this discovering thee!
 To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
 Then, where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
   Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee;
 As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
 To taste whole joys.

 Mercy! 'The Bait' is pretty sexy too, all that scintillating stuff about
enamoured fish making love to her underwater - like that memorable old
Japanese erotic print/netsuke of a woman in the clasp of an octopus - is
both titillating and charmingly silly. Once again, clever Donne worships a
woman out of her petticoats, and the appeal is not subject to Raleigh's
critique, for he promises nothing more than a really fun day of loving and
playing on the bank. (Donne's too clever for the lot of them - I expect
anyone writing a response to or a parody of Donne would find himself
anatomized in one of his wonderfully scathing satires).

 The big metaphor of her as a baited hook is proverbial, but Donne seems to
think he can get the bait off that hook and get away, or else that he will
be happily caught.


[thomas adds]

 "The Bait" was going to be the third poem in a series, following
Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and Sir Walter
Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" on the Minstrels. But David's
excellent commentary has left with me little to add, so I'll content myself
with a few expository notes. Most of these, incidentally, are based on the
annotations provided by A. J. Smith to the Penguin edition of Donne's
complete poems.


 Several manuscripts describe this poem as being written to match a melody
that pre-dated Donne; sadly, no contemporary musical setting of "The Bait"
has survived. (Though do check out Minstrels Poem #565, Thomas Campion's
"Now Winter Nights Enlarge", a poem/song written around the same time as
"The Bait"; a version for lute is available at
[broken link]

 "The Bait" varies Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd" (1599) and Raleigh's
"Nymph's Reply" (1600) (see links below). In "The Compleat Angler" (1655),
Izaak Walton has a milkmaid sing Marlowe's lines, her mother sing Raleigh's
reply, and Venator gives Donne's poem as 'a copy of verses thet were made by
Doctor Donne, and made to show the world that he could make soft and smooth
verses, when he though fit and worth his labour'. It's worth keeping in mind
that Walton's parish pastor was none other than John Donne...

 "When thou wilt swim in that live bath
  Each fish, which every channel hath,
  Will amorously to thee swim"
The lady's power to attract the fish when she bathed was a common conceit in
the erotic poetry of the time; witness the following:
 "Then quickly strip thyself! Lay fear aside!
  For of this dainty prey, which thou shalt take;
  Both sea, fish, and thyself, thou glad shalt make."
        -- R. Tofte, "Laura" (1597), II, 37

 "If thou, to be so seen, be'st loth,
  By sun or moon, thou darken'st both,
i.e., you outshine both sun and moon in your beauty.

 "curious" - artfully made.

 "sleave-silk flies" - artificial flies made out of the threads of sleaved
(unravelled) silk.

[Minstrels Links]

 This week's theme is Love Poetry:
Poem #997, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love -- Christopher Marlowe
Poem #998, A Blade of Grass -- Brian Patten
Poem #999, Casabianca -- Elizabeth Bishop
Poem #1001, The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd -- Sir Walter Raleigh
Poem #1002, The Bait -- John Donne
 There is of course no shortage of love poetry in the Minstrels archives;
see for a full list.

 John Donne, one of my favourite poets:
Poem #330, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
Poem #384, Song
Poem #403, A Lame Beggar
Poem #465, The Sun Rising
Poem #796, Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnets: X)
Poem #866, The Canonization
Poem #1002, The Bait

25 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Chellappa Mallika (Mallika) said...

Tsk,tsk, and him a preacher!
Just kidding.

Saw this elsewhere on Licoln's Inn:

The chapel bell is said to have been brought back
from Spain in 1596 as part of the spoils of Cadiz,
though modern research has thrown some doubt
on this. Every night it tolls a curfew at 9 p.m.,
formerly with one stroke for each year of the
Treasurer's age, but now a uniform 60. From time out
of mind it has also been the custom to toll the bell
in the middle of the day (now from 12.45 to 1.15 p.m.)
when news of the death of a bencher is received;
and over the ages many a barrister has sent his
clerk to find out who it is that has gone to his
fathers. The custom may well go back to the days
when Dr. John Donne was Preacher to the Inn,
finding an echo in his Devotions Upon Emergent
Occasions in 1624. It is in one of these that there are
the fine words which (in modern spelling) run:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is
a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a
clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a
manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's
death diminishes me, because I am involved in
mankind; and therefore never send to know for
whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."


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