The Bait

John Donne

‘The Bait’ by John Donne describes a speaker’s love and admiration for a woman. He emphasizes what her beauty and goodness are capable of. 


John Donne

Nationality: English

John Donne is one of the most important English poets of his time.

He was the best of the metaphysical poets and is remembered for his skill with conceits.

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This poem was composed as a reply to Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,’ one of several poetic replies penned by writers like Donne and Sir Walter Raleigh. ‘The Bait’ takes a different approach than Marlowe’s, outlining the speaker’s affection through river and fishing imagery

The Bait
John Donne

Come live with me, and be my love,And we will some new pleasures proveOf golden sands, and crystal brooks,With silken lines, and silver hooks.

There will the river whispering runWarm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun;And there the '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 dark'nest 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 nestThe bedded fish in banks out-wrest;Or curious traitors, sleeve-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.
The Bait by John Donne


‘The Bait’ by John Donne is an interesting, multilayered poem inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.’ 

The poem mimics Marlowe’s poem in many ways, including the opening lines. Rather than use classic pastoral imagery, though, Donne sets the poem near a river and uses a fishing conceit as the basis of his text. He describes the lady, the shepherd’s love, in the river. She brings fish of all varieties to her side with little effort and provides more than enough light and warmth for the speaker. He even says he doesn’t need the sun when she’s around. 


The main theme of this poem is love. The speaker uses the seven stanzas to complement his beloved on her good morals and beauty. She’s so full of light that the speaker feels as though he doesn’t need the light of the sun or moon. She’s also able to bring people to her side (represented by her standing near a river and attracting fish) with no effort. 

Structure and Form 

‘The Bait’ by John Donne is a seven-stanza poem divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD, and so on, changing end sounds from the first to seventh stanzas. This is the same rhyme scheme that Marlowe used in his poem. The poet also chose to iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.

Literary Devices 

Donne uses a few different literary devices in ‘The Bait.’ Some of these are: 

  • Allusion: seen through a reference to something outside the scope of the poem. For instance, in this poem, the poet alludes to Christopher Marlowe’s poem ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.’
  • Metaphor: a comparison between two things that don’t use “like” or “as.” For example, the poet uses an extended metaphor, comparing the fish in the river to people drawn to the woman’s side. 
  • Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions that help readers fully visualize something the poet is writing about. For instance, “Of golden sands, and crystal brooks, / With silken lines, and silver hooks.”
  • Juxtaposition: a contrast between two images. In this case, the images Marlowe presents in his original poem and Donne’s use of river/fish imagery.

Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

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.

In the first lines of ‘The Bait,’ Donne begins by copying Marlowe’s opening line, “Come live with me, and be my love.” The second line is also quite similar; Marlowe writes, “And we will all the pleasures prove,” and Donne changes “all the” to “some new.” This indicates that this poem is meant to be a response to the previous; it is working from what Marlowe has already created. 

The shepherd, in Marlowe’s version, is talking to his lover, asking her to come to him and love him, leaving behind the life she knew and dedicating herself to their relationship. 

Rather than speak about nature as Marlowe does with the line, “Woods, or steepy mountain yields,” Donne tries to make the natural world more appealing by describing it with “gold” and “silver” (words that imply value).  

Stanzas Two and Three

There will the river whispering run

Warm’d by thy eyes, more than the sun;

And there the ‘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.

The second stanza continues in the same way, with the speaker, a parody of Marlowe’s shepherd, telling his love that she is so beautiful and has so much sway over the world that she could warm the river with her eyes better than the sun could. 

The fish in the river will be so taken by her that rather than swim away in fear, they’ll stay near her wanting to feel her presence. They would put themselves at risk just to be close to her. 

The third stanza continues talking about the fish, with the speaker suggesting that if the lady got in the river, the fish would swim around her, hoping to touch her. They’d be far more interested in catching and having her than she is in catching them. 

They would “amorously” swim with her, comparing the love the fish would have (clearly hyperbolic) with the love the speaker has. He’s the one who feels amorously and is only using the fish as a representation of his love. 

Stanza Four 

If thou, to be so seen, be’st loth,

By sun or moon, thou dark’nest both,

And if myself have leave to see,

I need not their light having thee.

The fourth stanza is also fairly simple, with the speaker creating a rather predictable comparison between the lady and night/day. He believes that she is some of both and that she’d rather not be seen in any kind of light, rather than be in sunlight or moonlight. 

Plus, he adds, when he’s with her, he never even longs for any other kind of light. She provides the warmth and goodness that he needs. This intentional exaggeration is another example of hyperbole. Donne is using these lines to push the limits of what the woman can represent. 

Stanzas Five and Six

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, sleeve-silk flies,

Bewitch poor fishes’ wand’ring eyes.

The fifth and sixth stanzas should be read together. The speaker describes how others are welcome to freeze as they stand in the river and try to fish. They’ll have to contend with shells, weeds, and cuts from the many different items in the water. They use the bait of all varieties to trick and lure in the fish, something the speaker’s lady doesn’t have to do. 

In these lines, he uses words like “slimy,” “beset,” “strangling” to create a negative semantic field, implying that there is a good and bad way to go about catching metaphorical fish or attracting people. 

Stanza Seven

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.

The speaker begins the final stanza by saying that his lady doesn’t need to use deceit to attract fish as these other people do. Her goodness is true and bright. She is the only bait needed. 

It’s in the final stanza that readers may doubt the true goodness of the woman or at least the health of the speaker’s attraction to her. It seems that he’s so entirely attracted to her that he can’t get away. He’s caught, just as the fish was easily caught, and if someone can get away from her, then they are smarter and wiser than he is. 

This may suggest that while the speaker loves this woman and admires her, he’s so caught up in her that it feels like he has little choice in the matter. Something similar is suggested at the end of Whoso List to Hunt,’ Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem comparing pausing a woman to hunting a deer, or “hind.” He wrote, “Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt, / As well as I may spend his time in vain.”

Alternative Interpretation 

There is another popular interpretation of this poem that Donne was only using the image of a woman as a metaphor for God and Christianity. That Jesus is the one in the water attracting the fish with his bright, good morals and that the other fishermen, those who use bait and hooks, are the unChristian preachers and representatives of other religions who, the poem might imply, use negative means to get followers. 


What is ‘The Bait’ about? 

The Bait’ is about a man’s affection for a beautiful, light-giving woman who draws people (and fish) to her side effortlessly. She is, he says, all the light he needs. 

What is the purpose of ‘The Bait?’

The purpose is to reply to Marlowe’s poem, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,’ and a parody of what Marlowe was trying to attempt. Donne’s speaker suggests that his lover creates everything he needs, light and warmth especially, and he doesn’t need to fashion a beautiful world for her. 

What kind of poem is ‘The Bait?’

‘The Bait’ is a seven-stanza parody or mimic poem that follows a rhyme scheme of AABB, as Marlowe’s original did. It is also written in iambic tetrameter and composed in quatrains.

Who is the speaker in ‘The Bait?’

The speaker is meant to be a new version, or parody of, Christopher Marlowe’s shepherd in his ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.’ This speaker uses different images and different techniques than Marlowe does. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other John Donne poems. For example: 

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls’ – is a famous poem that explores the human condition. 
  • Death, be not Proud’ – is addressed to the reader and asks them not to fear Death as he only keeps morally corrupt company.
  • Holy Sonnet XVII’ – addresses God and expresses a speaker’s affection. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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