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Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  11 Sep 2008

Like so many of John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, “The Bait” is a work of pornography (or, more properly, erotic art), albeit a sensitive one. Ostensibly about a woman to whom fish are magnetically attracted, the poem depends for its meaning upon our understanding of the fish as phallic symbol. This, much more than Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to his Love (1599) or Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply (1600), offers an intertextual context.1 As A. J. Smith notes,2 “the lady’s power to attract the fish when she bathed was a common conceit in the erotic poetry of the time” -- the subtler English Renaissance equivalent of the tentacle-as-raping-phallus motif in Japanese films.3
Smith quotes R. Tofte’s Laura (1597) as an example:

Then quickly strip thyself! Lay fear aside!
For of this dainty prey, which thou shalt take;
Both sea, fish, and thyself, thou glad shalt make (II:37).
Though Smith could have chosen a more explicit or illustrative example, Tofte shall serve fair enough. The lines tell the female listener to strip with reckless abandon, laying “fear” and not “pride” aside -- implying that her concern is less modesty and more the possibility, or likelihood, of rape. This is reinforced by the poet’s commanding language, asserting “thou shalt take” his sex and “thou … shalt make” it come. The poet stages a zoophilic gang bang that would make The Little Mermaid proud; the whole sea will orgasm from the encounter. The poet refers to his phallus as a separate entity, the fish which she will gladden, and promises that she too will enjoy the violation, a common trope within rape fantasies. Implicitly, she has only to “lay” her fears aside and she will come along with the poet. While not the best example, the quoted lines nonetheless illustrate some themes of this particular subgenre of erotic poetry, a particularly evocative one given that the setting is itself limitless lubrication.
Donne’s “The Bait” both participates boldly in this erotic subgenre and undermines it -- or, rather, provides a sensitive narrative setting for it. The situation of the poem -- at least according to the poem itself -- is of the poet trying to entice the female listener to bed, even to being his live-in mistress (or group sex slave, as we shall see); he asks her to “live with me, and be my love” (1). But if love is the goal, it is eros of a particularly fleshy sort: indeed, the call to cohabitation is immediately revealed to be an erotic experiment, designed to “new pleasures prove” (2).
Donne sets the stage for the fish-penetrating-the-bathing-woman in the second half of the first stanza, offering a visionary series of four double-syllabled adjectives followed by single-syllabled, plural nouns. The adjectives are evocative of avarice and its comforts -- “golden” is the first and “silver” the last, with “crystal” and “silken” between. The first two nouns establish setting -- “sands” and “brooks” -- while the second pair offers specific material objects associated with capturing fish -- “lines” and “hooks.” In these two lines, Donne constructs a kind of vortex, pulling the reader into the visionary and symbolic sequence in which the bathing woman intimately receives fish. The audience’s mind is pulled into this metaphorical consciousness by the repetition of the two lines, acting like a meditative drum beat, and the evocative choice of words. Sensual pleasure is already brought to the reader’s mind through words such as “silken” and “brooks” (the latter having lubricous implications as well as conjuring the memory of water sensuously flowing over and around one’s feet).
Having drawn the reader into the visionary setting in which he will metaphorically describe the sexual experiment the poet proposes, Donne immediately writes of vaginal lubrication as a “river” (5). Rivers, of course, can hardly be “warmed by thy eyes” (6), but a vagina may certainly be warmed and lubricated by the visual desire of the woman of whom it is a part. Donne adds the phrase “more than the sun” (6) as if to make a joke at the expense of those who would read the two-line sentence as about rivers rather than female anatomy. Like the female listener of R. Tofte’s Laura, this female listener is encouraged to embrace the carnality of sex, to let her desire for sex “run” away with her; at this point, we may remember that the first line of the poem, and of the poet’s command to the female listener, is “come.”
The woman, described as thoroughly lubricated in the first two lines of the stanza, is described as thoroughly penetrated in the second two lines. It is in the “river” -- the interpretation of which as a river having been just mocked by Donne -- that “the’enamoured fish will stay” (7). “Enamoured” may be read as “erect,” but it also connotes active enjoyment and pursuit of the object of one’s amour: here the vagina itself -- or orgasm. This, along with “stay,” suggests vigorous and prolonged loveplay. The variants of this line, “enameled” for “enamoured” and “play” for “stay” are instructive in that they fit this interpretation, which any contemporary reader would have had. “Enameled” suggests that the fish has been coated entirely and evokes the shininess and stickiness of vaginal lubrication, while “play” signals the pure physical enjoyment of the fish, which joyously uses the “river” as a sexual toy for its pleasure. (Imagine the line “And there [in the vagina] the’enamoured fish will play.”) If “enamoured” has not suggested that orgasm alone is the goal of this penetration, “Begging themselves they may betray” (8) communicates it well. To “betray” themselves is to come, to “die” and thus lose a day of life, and it is something the penetrating phalli are “begging” for.
Perhaps more crucially, “themselves” suggests that “fish” (7) was plural and, while this fits into type, this also renders the sexual experiment proposed by the poet to be anything but mutual. To attach the first two lines to a poem of multiple fishes penetrating a bathing woman is to suggest that the female listener “come live with” the poet and be sexually available not only to him but to either paying customers or his friends -- or both. The “new pleasures” he wants her to “prove” are to be felt by many “fishes.” We may laugh at the biographical interpretation that supposes this poem written during Donne’s youthful days at Lincoln Inn, the rambunctious house of youthful bohemian men who we know to have enjoyed whores and who might well have enjoyed such a live-in fixture.
Donne’s next stanza expands on this idea, a fantasy of an enjoyably promiscuous woman, easily available for the pleasure of male genitalia without any romantic attachment. In praising the female listener of the poem, Donne compresses a number of implications: “Each fish, which every channel hath, / Will amorously to thee swim” (10-11). This praises the female listener by saying that she is so sexually desirable when aroused (and available) that every penis in the area will be engorged and in enthusiastic pursuit of her vagina. The idea of communal sex object is rather emphasized here. That the males have other sexual outlets is indicated by the phrase “which every channel hath,” ostensibly praising her sexual desirability by pointing out that the men eager to penetrate her have other sexual options in abundance. But, not only remembering the sexual meaning of “hath” but of “channel,” we may also wonder why “brooks” and “river” and “bath” have become “channel[s]” here, reaching the conclusion that the engorged men have experience penetrating other orifices -- not only of other women, but potentially of each other and other men as well as her. This connects to the last word of the stanza, “Gladder to catch thee, than thou him,” with its veiled threat: the poet has just stated that these men have “every channel” of hers available to them at “will”; now he states, ominously, that she won’t enjoy the sex as much as they will. Though ostensibly stating that her pleasure will be less than theirs, the line suggests she may not enjoy the sex much and implies that she may not at all -- and hints that she may dislike the treatment she receives. Donne has taken, in twelve lines, a common zoophilic conceit to the point of describing a (vigorous and sustained) gang bang in multiple orifices, with a rape-like overtone.
In the same stanza, Donne also expands on the implications of the fish-penetrating-the-bathing-woman subgenre, now equating the whole of the water with vaginal lubrication, a “live bath” so copious that she -- as well as her multiple lovers -- is “swim[ming]” in it. The ominous last line of the stanza also serves as a commentary on the conceit itself; though the woman is fishing, she does not catch the phallic fish (except perhaps temporarily and to their carnal advantage) and does not eat or destroy them (except if they prefer another “channel” and in as much as they are “killed”). In other words, Donne simultaneously carries the conceit to new and alarming levels while pointing out the irony of depicting a sexual object, passively penetrated, in the dominant role of someone fishing. Donne implodes the metaphor, collapsing its ironies inward upon itself, while simultaneously letting his audience enjoy the extremes of titillation that metaphor has to offer.
By comparison, Donne’s next stanza, though it shifts the entire flow (pardon the pun) of the poem, does comparatively little. Taken out of context, this stanza could be seen as a sensitive expression of male willingness not to gaze upon a shy female lover, an expression that subsumes the sun and moon themselves to the poet’s beloved. Donne’s mastery as a poet is that the stanza is at once exactly that and something more sinister -- or at least more sexual. Firstly, the poet “need[s] not their light, having thee” because he can feel every inch of her body and thus “see” her as well as he could were there light. Secondly, the woman’s desire not “to be so seen” refers to her being caught by a number of “enamoured fish” -- to the gang bang. The loss of the sun, at least, can be seen as a minor one, given that the poem has already rejected its importance because it cannot lubricate the female object as it might a river. The poet’s “see[ing]” of her is nothing more than his feeling of her when it’s his turn to let his fish become “gladder.” More dramatically, however, the poet now shifts from the language of “will,” complete with its potentially threatening tone, to that of “if.” He now posits that his female listener might have feelings about her nudity during this sexual experiment he has proposed; he is humanizing her. Moreover, he now imagines that, amidst all the fish, he has a special place: “and if myself have leave to see” (15). The romantic tone of this stanza is quite deliberate; the poet is beginning to imagine himself as more than one of many joyous fish in her “live bath”; he now imagines romantic possibilities with his female listener, whom he is propositioning with “silken lines” (4).
The poet continues along this track in the subsequent two stanzas that shift from the hypothetical “if” to the hopeful “let.” The pattern here is one of more desirable outcome to most undesirable. This begins with the poet’s imaginative hope that “others [will] freeze with angling reeds” (17), suggesting that his competitors’ phalli will droop, becoming “angling reeds” (a nice pun), due to the cold weather of the metaphorical bathing water, the half-symbolic atmosphere as they pursue her verbally and physically, and her own frigidity. He hopes that these same competitors “cut their legs,” or wound their appendages, “with shells and weeds” -- perhaps a hope that either she wears a chastity belt or (more humorously) has overgrown pubic hair of fairy tale strength. In other words, the poet first hopes that his competitors will be limp, will face frigidity, will wound their organs, or otherwise be unable to penetrate at all. The poet, in the next two lines, shifts to those “treacherously poor fish” (19) who have indeed penetrated, whom he hopes will become “beset, / With strangling snare, or windowy net” (19-20) -- in other words that her vagina will ensnare and strangle their phalli, or, failing to capture or do damage, simply be as loose and unsatisfying as a “windowy net.” (This nicely-phrased contrast of extremes, from too tight to too loose, is vintage Donne.) If his competitors are able to penetrate without such problems, the poet feebly hopes that the “coarse bold hands” (21) -- of the woman, now less desirable because of her successfully penetrated state -- “out-wrest” (22) or push out -- hopefully with injury to the fish, one suspects the poet hopes -- “the bedded fish” (22), a not-so-subtle pun for the successfully penetrated phallus.
The poet has gone from considering the female listener a sex object suitable for a gang bang to inevitable feelings of jealousy, albeit at a greatly accelerated rate; so now, as he contemplates another man’s “bedded fish,” he defensively considers her vagina -- the prize to which the whole poem has been constructed, the warm “river,” the “live bath” that gladdens -- to be a “slimy nest” (21). The lubrication so praised has now become slime, as disgusting as that which accumulates around real bodies of water. The metaphor of the woman immersed in lubrication has now been deconstructed by the ego of the poet, who has inevitably gone from the desire to simply sexually use to the desire to alone possess his object romantically. As if upset by this most disgustingly physical -- yet all-too-really imagined -- of possibilities, the poet then emotionally distances himself, finishing the stanza with a potentiality more hopeful than his first. Rather than flaccidity, the poet now hopes that his competitors -- or at least their “poor fishes” (24) -- are distracted, never reaching the woman at all.
The final stanza undermines -- or enriches -- the entire project of the poem. If the poem is pornographic, Donne, like most pornographic film, feels the desire to craft a narrative around it; yet Donne’s narrative is no guilty afterthought, and the fictional poet’s fish is a sensitive one in more ways than the one. The fictional poet; having moved from an attempt to enlist the female listener to become the sex slave of himself and multiple other men; through the imagination that he would inevitably want her for himself; and to hopeful demands that she and the world conspire to keep others from penetrating her, or enjoying doing so, or doing so for too long; now laments his sexual desire for her altogether. His enterprise fails on two levels: his seduction fails and he finds that she has already seduced herself.
As he writes in the first two lines of the stanza, she is too attractive for her own good. “Thou need’st no such deceit” (25), he tells her, to lure men away from penetrating her, as the preceding lines used “sleavesilk flies” (23); as the poet had advocated artificial distraction to lure mens’ phalli away from her, so she has a natural distraction. This is not, as it might first read, a statement that she does not need make-up to seduce. Rather, her own beauty is so powerful that she intimidates men without the need of “deceit”; the poet now realizes that her sexual desirability is so great that it inhibits fish from pursuing her penetration. The poem itself reflects this by shifting from seduction, which feels as if it should be read aloud, to abstraction, which feels as if it were the solitary written words of a man who no longer can muster the gumption to follow through on his attempted verbal seduction at all. “Thou thyself art thine own bait,” the poet writes, suggesting that she is aware of her own beauty and infatuated with it, enhancing his intimidation. Her self-love, which may be common to painfully beautiful women who are used to being the subject of “enamoured fish” and their fumbling seductions, defeats the poet’s ability to seduce her by inverting the entire fishing metaphor. If she is the goal the fish pursue, the fish can never claim her as well as she, sharing the same goal, can herself.
The last two lines -- “That fish, that is not catched thereby, / Alas, is wiser far than I” -- inverses the fishing metaphor and not only asserts his resignation from her pursuit but signals his acknowledgment of his defeat. In trying to capture her, to assert the fishes’ free reign over her sex, he has found himself enraptured by her beauty and by his desire to possess her solely (pardon the pun); he now realizes that his metaphor has collapsed and that he has been captured himself. The poem can thus be read as a deconstruction, even a feminist one, of the erotic motif wherein a bathing woman attracts -- and is assaulted by -- fish. The fisherman has the power; the caught fish merely respond to their nature. The erotic subgenre is itself an inversion -- or a celebration -- of the reality of woman’s power and of man’s enslavement to the fact that his fish wants her channel, which she controls. That the erotic fantasy allows fish to swim as they will in her river is a convenience of the metaphor. Like most pornography, it bespeaks man’s desire to penetrate without resistance, without consideration of consent, a condition society has leveled against the fish; unlike most pornography, it knows it. But if the poet is fishing for her, first as a sex object and then as a romance, she has already ensnared him by virtue of his anatomy.
Like many sensitive men, who nonetheless possess phalli, the poet yearns to enjoy his sexuality -- fundamentally restricted by social conventions.4 Lost in erotic fantasy, he finds his soul at odds with his genitals and yearns for monogamy on the part of his sex object; in the process, he cycles through moods that range from sappy romanticism to jealousy. He concludes by realizing that her personality has been seduced by her own beauty, ending with his simultaneous acknowledgement of the fact that his sensitive disposition will never be pleased with her egotistical one, of his physical desire for her and his personal inability to keep it at that, and of his own enslavement to his -- and her -- biology. The bait is her vagina, and his fish is caught by its nature in the pursuit thereof, despite his desire for emotional as well as physical closeness. Knowledge provides no consolation, and society reinforces the prison walls rather than offering the keys. Caught in the trap of his own biology, the fictional poet can only know that the bait is physically deadly and a psychological trap from which he can admire others’ freedom but cannot escape.
We can only guess at the reaction of those male readers who comprised John Donne’s coterie, used as they were to the pornography common to manuscript culture.5 One cannot help but wonder if they were seduced by pornographic fantasy offered by “The Bait,” only to find that this was itself a kind of bait. Such a reader, conscious of the poem’s pornographic metaphor, can only feel the trap spring shut as he reads, leaving him in the conclusion as trapped as the fictional poet.6

"The Bait"

1 Come live with me, and be my love, PROPOSITION TO SENSUAL EXPIRIMENTATION
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks, VISIONARY SEQUENCE
With silken lines, and silver hooks.
5 There will the river whispering run MASS LUBRICATION
Warmed by thy eyes, more than the sun.
And there the'enamoured fish will stay, MASS PENETRATION
Begging themselves they may betray.
9 When thou wilt swim in that live bath, FLATTERY /
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.
13 If thou, to be so seen, be'st loth,
By sun, or moon, thou darknest both,
And if myself have leave to see,
I need not their light, having thee.
17 Let others freeze with angling reeds,
And cut their legs, with shells and weeds,
Or treacherously poor fish beset, UNSATISFACTORY PENETRATION
With strangling snare, or windowy net:
21 Let coarse bold hands, from slimy nest COITUS INTERRUPTUS
The bedded fish in banks out-wrest,
Or curious traitors, sleavesilk flies DISTRACTION FROM PENETRATION
Bewitch poor fishes' wandering eyes.
25 For thee, thou need'st no such deceit,
For thou thyself art thine own bait, HER SELF-LOVE
That fish, that is not catched thereby, HIS SELF-DEPRICATING RECOGNITION
Alas, is wiser far than I.


This essay was first made available on on 8 July 2003. The author notes that it was written on Monday and Tuesday, 26-27 March 2001, with the annotated poem at the essay’s end being added shortly after midnight on Thursday, 29 March 2001. The author wishes to thank (though he may not wish it were so) Clinton A. Brand, for whose graduate seminar on Donne at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale this essay was written.
1 A man who greatly contributed to Donne’s revival, Herbert John Clifford Grierson, wrote in 1912: “Of the feeling for nature ..., ... pastoral and ideal pictures of meadow and wood and stream, which delighted the heart of Izaak Walton, there is nothing in Donne.” (See page 320 of John Donne: The Critical Heritage, Volume II, edited by A. J. Smith and published by Routledge in 1996.) Walton was the author of The Compleat Angler (1655) -- a book about fishing that included lines by Marlowe, Raleigh, and Donne in reply to one another -- who dully remarked that Donne wrote them “to show the world tat he could make soft and smooth verses,” adding simply that he (Walton) “loved them [Donne’s verses] the better, because they allude to Rivers, and fish, and fishing”; here Walton trivializes through poor adoration all of Donne’s poetry before trivializing “The Bait” through naïve praise of its ostensible subject. (See page 119 of John Donne: The Critical Heritage, edited by A. J. Smith and published by Routledge & Kegal Paul in 1975.) Grierson’s contrast between Walton’s rather unthinking love of fish and Donne’s “nothing” could be taken as great wit if we gave Grierson the credit. But I shall come around to my point. Grierson continued: “A greater contrast than that between Marlowe’s Come live with me and Donne’s imitation The Baite it would be hard to conceive” (ibid). I think we had best side with Grierson and not Walton. [BACK]
2 On page 358 of John Donne: The Complete English Poems, edited by A. J. Smith; this volume is Penguin Books’s mass-market paperback version of Donne’s collected work, first published in 1971. [BACK]
3 See Jack Hunter’s Eros in Hell: Sex, Blood and Madness in Japanese Cinema (Creation Books, 1998). [BACK]
4 The same tension between male sexual nature and social conventions is central to Donne’s “Confined Love.” [BACK]
5 See Arthur F. Marotti’s Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Cornel University Press, 1995), particularly “Obscenity and the Manuscript System” (pages 76-82). The poetry provided in that section is particularly memorable; it features phallic fish as well as the following memorable lines. Hardly “misogynistic” as Arthur claims (79), they offer a clever and, while no more acceptable today (due to remarkably similar, despite largely cosmetic differences, in disparaging attitudes toward women and male sexuality), devastatingly precise satire of make-up -- a ritual, after all, to enhance sexual desirability, a kind of artificial and displaced inflammation of the buttocks or genitalia:

We Maddams that doe Focus [cosmetics] use
greatly Muse [that]
Being ripe fruite you doe not plucke us,
Since characters in redde and white
plainely write
On our painted faces fuck us.
The last two words are “scored out” in poem, dated to 30 April 1615. (See Marotti for citation and discussion of the manuscript from which this poem comes.) [BACK]
6 The same combination of bravado and anxiety can be seen in other Donne poems; even those as apparently bragging in tone as “Elegy 7” beg an interpretation that focuses on the speaker’s defensiveness. I should also point out, given the novelty of this reading of “The Bait” and its limited focus, that I hardly find it altogether strange for Donne, whose poems are often in subject both sensitive and interested in the sexual use of women, both style both pornographic and communicative of religious and intellectual understanding. In various contexts an not without other meanings as well, the phallus is “love’s pinnace” (a small ship as well as a pun) which becomes “overfraught” (18) by the woman’s sexiness despite attempts to continue more “steadily” (16) in “Air and Angels”; it is also what “in false sleep will from thee shrink” when a lover “call’st for more” in “The Apparition” (9-10), what “slacken[s]” in the final line of “The Good Morrow” (21), what “[being] pampered swells” in “The Flea” (8), “what did move” in “The Ecstasy” (32); phalli are “tapers … [that] at our own cost die” in “The Canonization” (21), and even “changed sorts of meat” in “Community” (22). Similarly, the vagina is the “nothing” of “Air and Angels” (6, 8, 21), “the centric part” (a remarkable undermining of Petrarchan conventions) in Elegy 18, “Love’s Progress” (36), and “these living walls of jet” in “The Flea” (15).
Moreover, beyond the near constant puns on “die” and the more obvious references to “having got” various women, Donne’s poetry contains numerous slyer references in the style of “The Bait.” Donne writes in “Farewell to Love” that “[No]things not yet known are coveted by men, / Our desires give them fashion, and so / As they wax lesser, fall, as they size, grow” (8-10). He punningly suggests oral sex by writing nostalgically of having “sucked on country pleasures, childishly” in “The Good Morrow” (3) -- a passage which recalls the epitome of sexually punning passages, Hamlet’s talk with Ophelia: “Do you think I meant country matters?” (III.2.123). The “two better hemispheres” of “The Good Morrow” (17) suggests breasts, while the following “sharp north” and “declining west” suggest the phallus and feminine curves, as well as diagramming a position in which the man stands and the woman reclines. It is perhaps instructive that “heart” was written “whore” in one manuscript of “The Curse” (Smith, 364), and Mark Roberts (in Essays in Criticism XVI, from 1966, on pages 309-29) has pointed out the “s” of “suck” and its derivatives was often printed as “?,” allowing readers to “misinterpret” each “suck” as “fuck.”
The opening stanza of “The Legacy” is greatly sexual. It begins with the speaker telling his mistress, in playful language betraying defensiveness: “When I died last, and dear, I die / As often as from thee I go” (1-2). In other words, “I cheat every time I leave you.” The speaker then tells his mistress he dimly remembers talking to her, implying he may have told her he loved her and easily forgotten, but that he definitely remembers coming in her: “I can remember yet, that I / Something did say, and something did bestow” (6-7) -- to be read, I think, in a sly tone throughout, with the last phrase read as a kind of a bawdy punchline. [BACK]

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