John Donne--"The Bait"
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Before attempting to take on "The Bait", I am looking once more over the notes and analysis I made of Donne's "The Sun Rising" back in November of 1996. There is nothing earth-shattering about them, though they are certainly thorough compared to the way I read anything now. There is hardly a choice of word or image that I didn't try to take apart and assign a precise meaning or motivation to. Most of these meanings would be obvious enough, or at least simplistic enough, to an experienced reader that perhaps I don't need to bother making note of such things now. For all that I seem not to be very much inclined to apply the same degree of effort to attain the further, and greater, levels of comprehension. When I got to around 32 or 33 years old I began to grow rather petulant and determined that I had read, and done various other things, as a schoolboy long enough, and henceforth wanted to live and read in the character of a man of the world, whose valuations of general subjects must be accorded a certain importance merely by virtue of my established person. I did not regard myself as a wholly finished creature, and still intended further improvement, as much as it is reasonable to expect in a largely formed adult; however I considered that if I were not adequate to live and converse among men and women as a serious, grown-up person of some kind at 33, there seemed little point in struggling on in the hope, probably faint, of suddenly becoming so at 53, or 73. So, privately anyway, I declared that I was henceforth to consider myself as adequately educated and qualified for the myriad activities, pleasures, refinements and responsibilities of a worldly man. It is unfortunately a fantastical delusion when one considers my relation to any real society of men or women; but I have truly internalized it to a great degree, and it holds the brittle facade of my being together as well as anything could be expected to. "The Bait" actually does use a fishing metaphor, presumably for comic/satirical purpose, by way of response to "The Passionate Shepherd". The strange conceits of the metaphysical poets, Donne prominent among them, were so memorably remarked upon by Johnson in his famous analysis of them in the Life of Cowley that I cannot help but be immediately reminded of the idea in this poem. This is one of Donne's tamer efforts, for all that. The conceit is strange, but it is never strained in the telling, nor are his other attempts to present reality through somewhat unorthodox choices of images or words (sometimes the more strained efforts contain substantial beauties and insight, too, though with the effect, unlike with someone like Shakespeare, also of still being strained). In short, the girl is her own bait, and all the "fish" swarm around her whenever she goes for a swim, and allow themselves to easily snared. Apart from this main device, the poem is pretty conventionally written, most smoothly and elegantly I should add, as is not easily imitated, but there are no especially ingenious images such as the compasses of "To the Sunne" or the "gold to airy thinness beat" of "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning". My favorite stanza was:
"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."
I think Donne, and Marlowe as well, were almost too capable of poets to do much with the standard pastoral genre beyond dashing off neat, flawless little examples of them. Donne tried to make a joke, I think, but once he sets out on that path he pretty much follows it in a straight, flat line to the end rather than building up the absurdity further and further with every stanza. A tough group for me to say anything about. They really stumped me.
I figured if I just typed in "The Bait" and did a picture search a dangerous photo of some young girl would have to appear. This is all that came up though (well, besides the 47-year old bikini-clad lady holding up a catfish in a Florida swamp, but I couldn't bring myself to put that picture up).