Analyzing Metaphysical Poetry

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The poem "The Bait", written by John Donne, is a significant example of metaphysical poetry which I feel was written as a response to Christopher Marlowe's non-metaphysical poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." My opinion is based on the differences I find in three main themes which are conveyed in the poems. These themes are the poets' portrayals of the world, their views of romance, and the overall moods expressed in the poems. While Marlowe characterizes the world as an idealistic location, Donne uses a more realistic point of view to describe the environment of the lovers. Romance is painted in Marlowe's poem as an adventure that is full of joy and hope, but Donne suggests that romance is a relatively more serious and possibly dangerous experience. The overall lighthearted and blissful mood conveyed in Marlowe's poem contrasts with the troubled and dark mood of Donne's poem. The differences in the poets' descriptions of the world, their concepts of romance, and the contrasting moods of their poems are areas which lead me to feel that Donne's poem is written as a response to Marlowe's work.

While Marlowe's poem takes place in an somewhat imaginary world, Donne's poem portrays a more cynical and realistic image of the world. The characters in Donne's poem live in a world filled with real dangers and the possibility of death. In describing the pleasures used to tempt the lover, Donne includes the negative side of those pleasures. The "golden sands, and crystal brooks" (3) which are offered may be beautiful, but they do contain "silken lines, and silver hooks"(4) which can be deadly. When Donne writes about letting "others freeze with angling reeds,/and cut their legs with shells and weeds (17-18), it is clear that other fish are struggling and are in danger of getting harmed in their quest for love. "Strangling snare, or windowy net"( 20) is a further example of the real dangers present for the fish in Donne's portrayal of the world. The world in this poem is more practical than the world described in Marlowe's poem; it gives thought to many of the real dangers in life. Donne creates a picture of the world that is actually close to the reality of a life lead by a fish being lured by bait.

The concept of romance portrayed in the two poems differs a great deal. Marlowe's poem expresses an overly optimistic view of romance. He presents romance as both beautiful and unselfish, and captures the bliss of a natural and undemanding love. The shepherd tells the lady that if she will only, "Come live with me and be my Love" (1), he will give her delight after delight. He promises that she will be dressed in the finest luxuries "Fair lined slippers for the cold, With buckles of the purest gold (15/16) and will eat her meals from "silver dishes" (21). Never, in this poem, does Marlowe acknowledge any of the negative aspects that are hidden in his idea of romance. He fails to mention that he is not offering her marriage nor any suggestion that they will establish a future together. The concept of romance presented in this poem is one without any true commitment and offers only the pleasures of the moment. Marlowe's view of romance captures the joys of a simple and uncomplicated romance that is free of obligation.  

Romantic love in Donne's poem is expressed as a more cynical experience. Although the first stanzas of the poem represent a romantic world, the remainder of the poem seems to be mocking the existence of such genuine romantic relationships. Donne seems to be warning men about the dangers of women and of falling in love. The imagery in "Or treacherously poor fish beset/With strangling snare, or windowy net" (19-20) illustrates a man's loss of his ability to move and be free in his search of romance. It further conveys the idea that perhaps a woman is not as totally wonderful as man may believe, and that it is the woman who is in control of the romance "Each fish, which every channel hath,/Will amorously to thee swim,/Gladder to catch thee, than thou him" (10-13). The concept of romanic love portrayed in this poem is one of warning regarding the commitments and dangers that romance can hold. Donne's view of romance clearly captures the difficulties and complications that can be involved in romance. 

The mood conveyed in these poems is distinctly different. Marlowe's poem represents a mood that is carefree and light, and Donne's represents one that is dark and much more serious. In Marlowe's poem, the pastoral scene creates an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. The blissful description of romance creates an enchanting feeling that makes the mood of the poem appear magical. The treasures the shepherd offers to his love appeal to the senses and are among the most beautiful and luxurious that nature "hills and valleys, dale and field, and all that craggy mountains yield." (3/4) and man have to offer. The animated and cheerful vision that is created when the shepherd tells the woman that "the shepherd swains shall dance and sing" (25) if she will accept the gifts he offers conveys a mood that is enjoyable and merry. The happiness and promising mood of Marlowe's poem is in direct contrast to the darker and dangerous mood of Donne's poem.

In Donne's poem, the mood is dark and  the characters exist in an environment that is full of uncertainty and laced with danger. The pastoral scene of Marlowe's poem is replaced with the chaotic world of fish and bait together in the water. His skeptical description of romance creates a sense of caution which fills the poem with a mood of fear and apprehension. As the fish are completely captivated by the woman, they are willing to betray each other in order to gain her love. This willingness to betray each other plants an air of  deceit into the mood of the poem. Fear of being captured "Gladder to catch thee, than thou him" (12) suggests a mood of anxiety in that the man wants to enjoy the bait, but does not want to be snared by it. The possibility of the fish being caught by the bait also introduces the probability  of death to the poem and furthers its gloomy mood in that the fish "freeze with angling reeds" (17) or are unable to move due to the "strangling snare, or windowy net" (20). The dark mood created in this poem is significantly different from the bright mood of Marlowe's poem. 

My opinion that Donne's poem is written as a response to Marlowe's poem is based on the significant differences present in the themes of the poets' portrayals of the world, their views of romance, and the moods they set in their poems. Donne's realistic interpretation of the world is in direct contrast to the idealistic world portrayed by Marlowe. In Donne's poem, it is suggested that romance is not all joy and bliss, but is serious and can be perilous. Donne's troubled and dark poem was written in response to Marlow's light and happy poem. These theme differences in the description of the world, the concept of romance, and the mood of the poems lead me to believe that Donne's poem was written as a response to the poem of Marlowe. This makes me feel that future poets will respond to both of theses poems with their own views.