The metaphysical poets were a group of 17th-century artists who wrote complex, intellectual, and philosophical
verses with extended metaphors (or “conceits”) comparing very dissimilar things. Following the writings of
Greek philosopher Aristotle, these poets wrote about the nature of reality and the relationship between
intellect and the physical world. Perhaps the best-known metaphysical poet is John Donne (1572–1631). The
English poet not only twisted and distorted the idea of poetic subjects at the time, he did the same with poetic
form and language. Rather than adhering to the traditional rhythmic and stanza patterns and high language
of his predecessors, he chose instead to use more complex patterns and varied types of everyday language.
Though his language might seem antiquated and “highbrow” to modern readers, keep in mind this is the way
people in 17th-century England actually spoke—it was shocking to his contemporaries that he would diverge
from the long-established traditional ideals and formal language of poetry.
In “The Bait,” John Donne elegantly carries out one of the most characteristic elements of metaphysical
poetry—he compares two objects so different from each other it makes the reader confused and somewhat
startled by the comparison. This technique is intended to jar the reader into truly reading and thinking about
the poem’s argument. Read the poem and see firsthand how Donne adeptly uses this technique to make us
consider carefully his flattering comparison between his lover and a fishing lure.
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.
There will the river whispering run,
Warmed by thine eyes more than the sun.
And there the enamored 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, beest loath,
By sun or mom, thou darkest 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,
Our 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, sleave-silk flies,
Bewitch poor fishes’ wandering eyes.
For thee, thou needest no such deceit,
For thou thyself art thine own bait;
That fish that is not catched thereby,
Alas, is wiser far than I.
— John Donne (1633)