Monday, June 24, 2013

Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star

John Donne’s “Song: Go, and Catch a Falling Star” (1633) is a perfect example of Donne’s earlier playfulness with metaphysical conceits and female sexuality.  As a younger poet, before Donne became an Anglican Theological Doctorate famous for his sermons, John Donne was a rather ‘maiden-obsessed’ Jacobean poet with a reputation for sonnets about the women of London.  John Donne’s “Song: Go, and Catch a Falling Star”, is an example of some of the humorous works Donne would come up with for the drunken jokers of English taverns to recite when out of favor with the ladies.
John Donne (1572 – 1631) was a metaphysical lyrical poet famous for his use of the metaphysical conceit: a strange and interesting comparison between two subjects when they, in fact, have very little in common at all.  These comparisons are so outrageous that in doing so, Donne’s poetry could almost be considered metaphysical ‘humor.’  A classic example of Donne’s work, “The Flea” (1633), shares much of the style and banter of “Song: Go, and Catch a Falling Star”.  In “The Flea”, Donne attempts to persuade a woman to make love with him by describing a bedbug that had bitten them both, and then comparing that insect to a wedding bed.  In Donne’s argument, because their blood was consequently mingling within the insect, was that they were already unified in a symbolic sanguine marriage, and so the physical act of love between them now would be of little consequence to the woman’s principles.  This same sense of humor, the one that made John Donne such a historical poet, is what a reader would find in Donne’s “Song: Go, and Catch a Falling Star.”
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 find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind. -
If thou be'est born to strange sights,        10
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 where
Lives a woman true, and fair. -

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such 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 she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
   (John Donne, 1633)
John Donne’s “Song: Go, and Catch a Falling Star” is a metaphysical conceit of the unnaturally small frequency of fair and virtuous women in the world.  Donne uses the fantastic and impossible examples of catching falling stars; pregnancies with mandrake roots; and hearing mermaids singing to describe just how hard it is to find a beautiful woman who will stay true and loyal to her husband.  Donne describes in the second and final stanza of “Song: Go, and Catch a Falling Star” how if one were to search the world for a thousand days and nights, seeing many strange and wonderful things, they would still not find a single faithful woman.  Donne even goes so far as to state in the last stanza that if he were to know where that perfect woman was, even if she was next door, she would already be false with several men before he even managed to walk the few steps to reach her.
In interpreting John Donne’s poem, “Song: Go, and Catch a Falling Star”, it would be quick to assume he holds some religiously pious distain for women who, by Biblical nature, where liars and deceivers.   True, it seems to be something of a sermon for young clergymen to be weary of the female seductress and, true, he probably did write it when he was still stinging from an unfaithful young lover he had when he was himself a young man of reputation, but its entertaining wit and imaginative conceit almost dictates a humorous jest at female stereotypes.  After all, what lover, after finding a partner unfaithful, doesn’t go through a phase of distaining the offending sex.  John Donne, in his classic style, avenges himself with a sonnet sharp enough to draw blood, yet still softly touched with humor so to keep it in circulation well after his death.
“Song: Go, and Catch a Falling Star,” is one of John Donne’s most famous early poems about female nature.  Its lines of witty stereotypical prose would serve as a rallying banner for betrayed young men throughout London; striking at those femme-fatal’s of the gentleman’s heart.  Yet, the female reader should not lose any love for Donne.  He was, after all, a young poet whose satirical works were his main focus in his early period.  In the end, however, he did marry his loving wife, Anne, to whom he stayed passionately involved until her death in 1617, and never remarried even though they had a large family of eleven children together.
D.N. Aloysius

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