Silken Lines and Silver Hooks

Silken Lines and Silver Hooks

This week’s poem is by John Donne, the Elizabethan poet who produced a wealth of sacred and profane poetry in his lifetime.

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.

John Donne (1572—1631)

Poem 178. The Bait

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
Warm’d by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there the ‘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.

From sailing to fishing, I don’t seem to be straying far from the theme!

This poem is John Donne’s take on “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” by Christopher Marlowe, which I covered in May last year. Donne very ably uses the same form to write a kind of hymn starting with the pleasure of spending a warm day with a fishing rod by a babbling brook. Like many of Donne’s poems though, there is a hidden agenda, and his main purpose is to attract the object of his affections, rather than the population of the river.

Before long, he is praising his sweetheart, suggesting that if she were to bathe in the brook, the fish would come to her: no need for rod nor net. Should she be so modest as to prefer the darkness when the sun has set and the moon is not in the sky, Donne says that he wouldn’t need their light either, having her luminescence to see by.

He consigns other fishermen to their fates: freezing in inclement weather, suffering cuts and scrapes from the environment, grasping at their slippery quarries with snare, net, hand or artful fly. His inamorata needs no such wily deceits: any fish uncaught by her subtle attraction must be “wiser far than I”.

I like this because it’s a kind of remix of Marlowe’s poem with the same intention: to woo a fair maid; Donne frames it in the language of fishermen and anglers instead of shepherd boys, but it is still a kind of love song. I like the opening lines, with its golden sands, crystal brooks, silken lines and silver hooks. It seems to me that Donne’s initial picture of angling isn’t as realistic as the later lines in the poem when he speaks of freezing conditions, strangling snares, windowy nets and slimy nests.

In the end, it seems that the bait that Donne writes of is his sweetheart who is more attractive to him by far than his box of worms, gentles (maggots) and hand tied fishing flies.

This was the first poem I found in a book of Donne’s poems given to me on my birthday by Dave Fergus who is a member of SHAG — the Saracen’s Head Angling Group. This seems an appropriate way to thank him, and SHAG, for all their kindly friendship.


  • Visit the Saracen’s Head Angling Group’s website.