‘Song’ by John Donne might sound like an innocent piece of poetry, but it definitely touches on a sordid subject. Find out what that is in this lesson. Below, you’ll explore a synopsis of the poem and see it analyzed.
English speakers often use the idiomatic expression ‘when pigs fly’ to identify an undertaking as impossible. This expression could’ve just as easily been the title of John Donne‘s poem, ‘Song,’ which was written during the 16th century. The poem’s first line, ‘go and catch a falling star,’ is a similarly impossible proposition. In the rest of the first stanza, the poetic narrator urges the reader to attempt many more unfeasible tasks, such as finding a pregnant mandrake root, learning ‘who cleft the devil’s foot,’ or teaching him to hear the song of mermaids or to cultivate an ‘honest mind.
‘If the narrator’s addressee is up to these tasks, then the poet attests in the second stanza that he should take a journey of ‘ten thousand days and nights’ in search of a faithful woman. Nevertheless, even though he was able to accomplish all the feats of the first stanza, and despite his extensive searching and encounters with ‘strange wonders,’ the narrator claims he will still be unable to find a woman true to her word.If, however, by the slim chance the reader is able to find even one such female, he is urged by the poet in the third stanza to ‘let me know.’ In another couple of lines, though, the poetic narrator says he doesn’t want to know after all, since he knows that, although she might be faithful to the reader’s face, she would’ve already lied to two or three other men by the time the poet arrived.Here’s the text of the poem:’Go and catch a falling star,Get with child a mandrake root,Tell me where all past years are,Or who cleft the devil’s foot,Teach me to hear mermaids singing,Or to keep off envy’s stinging,And findWhat windServes to advance an honest mind.If thou be’st born to strange sights,Things invisible to see,Ride ten thousand days and nights,Till age snow white hairs on thee,Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,All strange wonders that befell thee,And swear,No whereLives a woman true, and fair.
If thou find’st one, let me know,Such a pilgrimage were sweet;Yet do not, I would not go,Though at next door we might meet;Though she were true, when you met her,And last, till you write your letter,Yet sheWill beFalse, ere I come, to two, or three.’
Even though it is not one of John Donne’s ‘Elegies,’ it nonetheless focuses on a very elegiac sentiment: the supposed inconstancy of the fickle feminine sex. Lovers’ infidelity has been a major theme of elegiac poetry since antiquity, and continues to this day – ever heard a country song about a cheating heart?Aside from overtones of love and faithlessness, Donne incorporates another elegiac staple into his ‘Song’: the use of extreme exaggeration to refer to something as an impossibility, also known as adynaton, which is Greek for ‘not possible.’ Donne begins the poem with a stanza loaded with this literary device when he provides his list of exaggeratedly improbable tasks. Two of these tasks in particular – those referencing the mandrake and the mermaids’ song – pertain to women and their deceptive seductions, and the author ends the stanza with a clue to their dishonesty when he acknowledges the difficulty of keeping an ‘honest mind’ on course.
The usage of adynaton continues in the second stanza when it’s claimed that no truthful woman could be found anywhere you could travel in the span of nearly three decades (‘ten thousand days and nights’). The expression is inflated even further here, though, by Donne’s use of a conditional statement, a statement that describes a possibility and typically begins with ‘if,’ to open the second stanza.What he says here is that, even if you were the sort of person who could accomplish all the feats of the first stanza, and you conducted this extensive search, you still wouldn’t be able to encounter a female who’s faithful.
This apparently especially applies to beautiful women, since the poet finishes the stanza with ‘No where / Lives a woman true, and fair,’ using ‘fair’ here to most likely indicate both form and virtue. Obviously, Donne wasn’t the kind of guy who thought of women as individuals.
Mood and Tone
Another conditional statement begins the final stanza; however, this one, like many others of its type, appears in conjunction with the subjunctive mood, which represents the use of verbs to express uncertainty or improbability, such as through wishes, commands, or notions contrary to fact. In the case of Donne’s conditional, we’re dealing with a notion contrary to fact: ‘Such a pilgrimage were sweet.’ By employing the subjunctive ‘were’ in this manner, Donne once more identifies the condition of finding a faithful woman as an impossibility.
This is, of course, because she would’ve already said the same things to two or three other men before her first could ever get back.Though Donne may appear rather passionate over this apparent shortage of honest women in his composition of ‘Song,’ his true fervor for a faithful female might be a little less adamant than you would expect from reading this piece. The poet certainly uses several literary devices and techniques, such as adynaton, conditions and subjunctive mood to drive his point home concerning a woman’s inconstancy; however, there’s also a bit of a playful mood, as the narrator seems to be teasingly egging the reader on toward an obviously already bygone conclusion. In fact, there’s evidence in Donne’s work that he was not at all averse to the idea of feminine infidelity, since in the closing lines of a poem ironically titled ‘Woman’s Constancy,’ he remarks on how her sleeping around essentially allows him to do the same:’Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I couldDispute and conquer, if I would,Which I abstain to do,For by tomorrow, I may think so too.
‘Song’ by John Donne is also commonly referred to by its first line – ‘Go and catch a falling star,’ which introduces the poet’s discussion on the impossibility of finding an honest woman. The poem is characterized by a fixation on lovers’ complications common both to elegy and to metaphysical poetry – 17th-century verse marked by its use of complex imagery primarily to explore concepts of religion or love.The poem also has an overwhelming use of extreme exaggeration, such as ‘learning to hear mermaids’ and ‘journey of 10,000 days’ to refer to something as an impossibility.
This is a literary device known as adynaton. The poet’s position on the infidelity of women is strengthened by the usage of conditional statements beginning with ‘if,’ especially when combined with thesubjunctive mood, which represents the use of verbs to express uncertainty or improbability, such as through wishes, commands, or notions contrary to fact.
An Overview of John Donne’s ‘Song’
|Synopsis||difficult to find that perfect love, according to John Donne, and if one does they should inform Donne|
|Conditional statement||conditional statement: a statement that describes a possibility and typically begins with ‘if’ to open the second stanza|
|Subjunctive mood||represents the use of verbs to express uncertainty or improbability, such as through wishes, commands, or notions contrary to fact|
|Adynaton||overwhelming use of extreme exaggeration|
Studying this video lesson on ‘Song’ by John Donne should help you to:
- Recite the poem
- Analyze the poem
- Recognize the mood and tone throughout