Frequently, in evaluating John Donne’s “The Bait,” commentators will agree that the motivating theme in the poem is that of parody, especially with the situated concern of mocking the over-stylization of the pastoral love lyric.(Ousby 33-7) A courtly lyric, “The Bait” is seen to serve, to court an unknown woman while it courts the audience. A self-serving poem as it is a poem that mocks while it grants favors to the ear, there is a mixture of the ugly and overdone along with the sweet and gentle innocence through which the best of language is conveyed.
If the pastoral is nature at its most perfect and artificially sustaining, to mock it would be to use nature against itself. The poem starts spreading out in parody in the second stanza with the lines, “And there th’ enamour’d fish will stay,/Begging themselves they may betray.”(“The Bait”). Donne makes it ugly by using the word fish instead of a word that carries a similar meaning but sounds much better. Donne could have talked about “salmon as they stray/angled at the water they beckon and play,” for example. The word fish is covered with a fishy odor that makes one be overcome with distaste while at the same time insulting one’s eyes as a generic fish is typically not a prize for the eyes.
Relying on convention, Donne nevertheless uses convention against itself. If specific types of fish are so often relied upon for metaphorical value, then, he apparently poses, why can’t the generic fish be used as well? By falling back on convention and making inferential statements towards it, Donne is able to manipulate the effect so that he simultaneously attacks while defending himself. At the same time, weaved within a context of prominent courtliness in the manner of writing poetry, Donne ensures that his poem will carry meaning for people as it is read. As T.S. Elliot reminded readers, one can never write completely outside of tradition, for within tradition is the preservation of civilization and without that one would not know the meaning of meaning.
Furthermore, the fishing tropes highlight that there was the subtext of a tension existing within the prevalent use of fishy metaphors that prettified rather than made apparent such tension and such ugliness operating within the very word.(Jameson 81-82) Fish is simultaneously playful, innocent, lovely, tasty, and also, corrupt, stinky, rotting, and gross. There is a tension between health and a corpulent rotting away, between playful youth and mature solidity and rigidity. The binary oppositions cannot help but appeal both at once when the word “fish” is stated so bluntly and the reader is left with a sense of uneasy and unsettled emotion.
Furthermore, the most universal binary opposition of all, that which wrestles the sacred and the profane, is evident in the fishing tropes; as the sacred is frequently all that is transcendently beautiful and all that is profane is frequently that which is on the stage of dying away, wasting away, or a disease that is diseased itself. Furthermore, the fish incorporates the Platonic reference to the sensory being like a fisherman’s bait in that it lures one away from true transcendence.(Plato 271-73; 283-85) This metaphoric operation of distraction from what is real that is very real in itself. If fish occupy the waters happily but are lured away by the bait of the fisherman, they cause their own death. For Donne, who was had challenging relationships in life with women, he may have readily assumed that many men fall to their deaths because they take the bait provided by women and fight it while not letting it go. Until they eventually flop in foreign territory and cannot survive as they that live in water cannot breathe on land.
Ovid also uses the metaphor of “bait” as a way to associate “bait” with female sexuality.(Ovid 39-41; 148-49) As it catches men, and makes them fight as they’ve never fought for life. There is both a humor and a heroic uselessness to the effort of trying to fight to get away while still being allured as if the bait were prey.
Last of all, Donne in his own way cries foul on the pastoral because it takes one near God but it is not a creation of God. The fish that we see is never transcendent, it is a living and at the same time rotting thing that can distract one momentarily but never transition one to truth, brilliance, or the authenticity of a possible transcendence.
Heather Dubrow Ousby, “John Donne’s Versions of Pastoral,” DUJ 37 (1976): 33-7.
Frederic Jameson. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Plato. Timaeus, trans. Harold North Fowler. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1921.
Ovid. The Art of Love and Other Poems, trans. J. H. Mozley. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1939.