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JohnDonne.jpgIt’s National Poetry Month!  I’m not actually that big on poems in my everyday reading life, but there is one that comes to mind when someone asks me, “what’s your favorite poem?”

My junior year of high school, we studied the 16th century’s metaphysical poets, including John Donne, in Ms. Martin’s English class. I found them to be maddeningly cryptic, usually depressing, and next-to-impossible to interpret.  It didn’t help that Ms. Martin was an exacting teacher with extremely high standards for her students.  By the end of my year in her class, I had done two things: cried in front of her because I was so frustrated with my inability to decipher the poems, and decided that the struggle was so worthwhile, I wanted to become a writer. 

Here’s why I specifically love Donne’s “The Bait.”  First, it carries a level of sophistication in the sense that it’s a response to an earlier poem, Christopher Marlowe’s “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” That poem is as flowery and lovey-dovey as they come, the young, besotted shepherd making a simple, beautiful declaration of love and a request that his beloved return his feelings.  “Come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove….”  Donne is darker than that, less into the gold, myrtle, and flowers of love, but more interested in the painful yet delicious ensnarement that we all subject ourselves to when we fall in love. To me, this poem is ultimately about true love as a force of nature. It’s more mature than Marlowe’s lustful original, but so is any lasting relationship.

What do you think–is this a love story, or a subversive warning?  And, what’s your favorite poem?  

THE BAIT
by John Donne

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, 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.

(image via: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Donne)

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