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.
It is just a pet theory here, but might be fun in talks about Shakespeare or Southwark. John Donne, soldier, poet, father of 12, and preacher, must have been a constant Southwark visitor and his daughter Constance married the actor manager Edward Alleyn, who lived with his father-in-law Philip Henslowe there, and became a warden at St Saviours. In trying to fictionally imagine London and Southwark of the time though, first in a film script, that Charles Dance promised to comment on and never did, though SKY thought it good (!), then a novel about Edmund Shakespeare, William’s unkown youngest brother, Donne’s poem The Bait suddenly sang of the area. It was part of that little poetic contest between Marvel and Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd, but there is one line that sounds with brothel tenements and taverns in Southwark, and that is ‘windowy nets’, quite apart from the running river that speaks of the Thames. Then there are those sleeve-silk flies, factually accurate, but perhaps also redolent of an area swarming with Walsingham’s spies, in Elizabethan cuffs, or others betraying themsleves, or each other.
It was of course London’s most thriving tavern, brothel and theatre district, and Elizabethan or Henretian brothels, there for centuries, were also called the “stewes”. The medieval word seems to have dropped out of usuage during the Reformation, as it became better known as Bankside, but there has also been debate about the derivation of that term. Whether it stemmed from the Scandinavian for a stove, or the medieval ‘”stewes’, or Pike and carp fish ponds, that still existed in Southwark. The obvious link is the second, for many fishy reasons, and of course London bridge was a great centre for those fisherwomen, hawking their catch out of Billingsgate, with their pretty or lewd songs. If you are trying to imagine what the Shakespeare’s saw there at the time, in the face of the sturdy, power seeking City of London across the water, Fishmongers Hall stood right opposite St Saviours, now Southwark Cathedral. The Thames too, only beginning to touch the days of mass Urban pollution, long before the silted or darkened waters of Dickens, was a broad river many fished. Wand Mills had also grown up right along its banks to feed the new, and often Dutch, hop brewing trade in London, that spread down into Surrey and Kent. There, just a little food for Elizabethan thought and reality.