Analysis of The Bait by John Donne

The Bait

John Donne was known as metaphysical poet who lived in the late 16th century and early 17th century. Many scholars believe that his poems were not just metaphysical alone but his works reflected the changing trends in his life. So there were satires and love poetry during his youthful days and religious sermons during his later years. Whatever he wrote went on to be popular as manuscripts and even after it was published. In his poems there is a shift from classical form to a form which was more personal. He was popular for his poetic meter and his poems had a casual tone. It might be for these qualities that John Donne’s poems continue to inspire the new crop of poets.


In the poem ‘The Bait’, John Donne has taken the traditional pastoral form and applied it to water bodies and fishes.  He is inviting his love to live with him and he would show her different pleasures. Donne was talking about ‘golden sands, crystal brooks, silken lines and silver hooks’. The river there will be warmed by her looks rather than by the sun. The fish are attracted to her and come to stay to be caught. Expanding on the same thought Donne says that when she goes to swim in that ‘bath’, each fish will move towards her and will swim around her passionately, happy to touch her. They might not want to be caught by her.

Donne in the fourth stanza moves away from the river and fish scenario and says that sun and the moon is not as bright as she is and that he needs no light when he has her by his side. Back to the fishes in the fifth stanza Donne states that others try to catch the fish with snares and nets and in the process they might freeze their legs and cut their legs with shells and weeds. The fishes are deceived and caught and they are caught using the cruellest ways. Now for his beloved she need not resort to deception for she herself is the bait. If there was any fish not attracted by her, he says at the end of the poem, that fish was wiser than him.

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‘The Bait’ is a poem with seven stanzas and each stanza has four lines. The rhyme scheme is AABB and is written iambic quadra meter. The poem does not start abruptly like many of Donne’s poems. He has written a love poem without becoming sensuous. Though it is seen as love poem it can be read at different levels. Some scholars liken the fish to men who clamour after woman. He carries this analogy all through the poem. Since it is carried all through the poem it can be called extended metaphors. If it is read with a spiritual bend of mind the reader gets to see the metaphysical aspect of the poem. Beloved is Jesus who is the fisher of men according to the Gospels. Jesus warms the people and outshines the sun. And when he enters the world, (beloved entering water) he attracts followers. In this manner Jesus can be seen in the place of the beloved. The last two lines are seen as a dig against people who did not believe in Christ and called them wiser for not getting caught into the web of love of Christ. ‘The Bait’ is a poem that has many layers of meaning and can be seen as the reader seems fit.