The speaker asks the object of his affection to come live with him—presumably to marry him and be his wife. He then discusses fish in pools and brooks as an indirect way of describing the allure of his beloved. The river will be warmed by her eyes, and the passing fish will be drawn to her, easily caught. If she enters the water, the fish will follow her. While others may catch fish in slimy and hurtful ways, deceiving the fish, the beloved is her “own bait,” honestly attracting others to her. The poet concludes that any fish that can resist her charms is wiser than himself.
This poem shows Donne’s ability to take the standard pastoral form and apply it to a traditional spiritual metaphor. Whereas the traditional pastoral would focus on a shepherd or another land-based outdoorsman, “The Bait” takes as its motif a fisherman. Instead of sheep and green fields, Donne describes sparkling water and fish. The poem is made up of seven four-line stanzas, each of which follows an aabb rhyme scheme.
Donne characteristically begins the poem with an address to his beloved: will she live with him? If she does, they can “some new pleasures prove” (line 2), suggesting spiritual, intellectual, or sexual pleasures. By the end of the stanzas, he has changed the topic from sand and brooks to—of all things—fishing hooks.
This transition is so unusual that the reader might quickly see the spiritual meaning of the conceit: the beloved is Jesus, who is the fisher of men in the Christian Gospels. This connection helps the reader see what is going on in the rest of the poem. In the second stanza, the water will be “Warm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun” (line 5); indeed, God outshines the sun (in line 14 his beloved is so bright she darkens the sun and moon both). Accordingly, every fish will be “enamour’d” of her (line 7) and abides with her.
To take the next step, the beloved enters the water and swims with the fish, parallel to Jesus entering the world and attracting followers. On the physical level, the fish represent men who are taken by the woman’s beauty and thus draw near to her, heedless of the captivity they will endure to her charms. Yet, Donne’s spiritual meaning is hard to miss once the conceit has been unlocked.
Stanzas five and six compare the beloved’s ability to draw in her prey with the difficulties other fishermen encounter via their less justifiable strategies. They may “freeze” and “cut their legs” in harsh conditions; worse, they may act “treacherously” (line 19) and use deception or cruelty to catch the fish (“strangling snare,” line 20, or the “curious traitors, sleeve-silk flies” used as bait in line 23). The worldly analog to these false baits may be promiscuous or deceitful women, who cannot win a man’s love by their own natural beauty and instead act with deception or artifice. The spiritual analog is that group of demagogues or false preachers who deceive or make false promises in order to gain followers.
In the final stanza, the poet concludes that the beloved “need’st no such deceit” (line 25). This is because of the natural goodness that inherently draws men: “thou thyself art thine own bait” (line 26). Indeed, the poet has already been caught, comparing himself to one of the fish: “That fish, that is not catch’d thereby,/Alas! is wiser far than I” (lines 27-28). He is so enamored of her that he cannot imagine anyone who can escape her charms.
Yet, perhaps there really is a fish so wise it is not caught. Is this an ironic dig at unchristian philosophers who believe they are too wise to be drawn to Jesus? Or is the poet secretly hoping that he could be wise enough not to get caught? One might be drawn to look deeply into Donne’s biography to try to uncover the degree to which he genuinely determined to be a Christian divine versus succumbing to the pressure of his times.
Either way, as a metaphysical poet, Donne succeeds here in creating a love poem that does not rely on passion or overt sensuality to convey its point. He goes the opposite direction, speaking of slimy fish, ultimately communicating the purity of one’s love for his beloved and, by extension, for God.