The title of this poem by John Donne begins with the designation, Song. I wonder in what sense this is meant, for the poem is neither particularly musical or particularly joyful. In fact, if you get past the fantasy fiction of the first stanza, the poem seems to be somewhat of a misogynistic rant regarding the perfidy of women. You couldn’t get away with that these days, but it is a reminder of how negative views about women, as expressed by men, in most cases, were regarded as completely normal.
There was actually a famous song called Catch a falling star, a hit for Perry Como in the late 1950s. That was a song full of wonder and optimism so couldn’t be more different than this effort by John Donne.
Song: Go and catch a falling star
BY JOHN DONNE
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,
Serves 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,
Lives 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,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
So what do we have here? Three stanzas, nine lines each, following a regular rhyme scheme ABABCCDDD, which someone smarter than I am might know the name of. The first stanza plunges into the realm of fantasy and mystery, even of sorcery and witchcraft, with the mentions of the mandrake root, the devil’s foot and the mermaids. The second stanza has the poet seeking enlightenment on these mysteries from someone old and wise, but then the final line of this stanza brings home the real point of this poem – that it would take an aged sage to find a woman true and fair. The final stanza reveals the perceived hopelessness of this task as any woman the sage finds who could meet these standards would inevitably have become false by the time the poet could meet her.
Such attitudes as this go a long way to explaining the duration of subordinate roles for women in many societies and civilisations.
The Poetry Dude