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Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Bait

(portrait of John Donne by unknown painter, c. 1595)

O, those metaphysical poets! What are they on about, with their strange metaphors?

The metaphysical poets were seventeenth-century lyric poets like John Donne, George Herbert, Henry King, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan. The name “metaphysical” refers to the relations these writers made between the abstract and the concrete, the philosophical and the physical.

They frequently used unusual metaphors to establish these connections. In their extended comparisons, “the idea and the simile become one,” as the poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) wrote about one such poem.

The critic Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) popularized the metaphysical label. He was, however, dismissive of their work: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises, but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.”

Dr. Johnson could very well have been describing the “metaphysical conceits” or images in this poem by John Donne. The poet’s words do seem incongruous. Few of us would choose such words to invite a beloved into our life.

But does the poem appeal to us? Yes, if we let the paradox, the surprise, the contradiction, the unexpected, the wit, the images, do their work and make us stop and think.


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 whisp’ring run
Warm’d by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there th’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 nest
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest;
Or curious traitors, sleevesilk 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.

~ John Donne (1572-1631), the finest of the English Metaphysical poets


Barbara Sullivan Mangogna said...

One of my absolute favorites! I's like spoken silk. If I could write half so well. . . Barbara

KingOfHearts said...

wow...amazing poem. really really great, i don't know what to say to express it. ^_^