Analysis of "Song – Go and catch a falling star" by John Donne
Is a good woman hard to find? In the 17th century poem "Go and catch a falling star", John Donne uses hyperbolic rhetoric to make a cynical claim.
Donne’s "Song", often known as “Go and catch a falling star” (1633), is a poem that lists out a series of impossibilities and links them, rather disparagingly, with the constancy of women. It comes to the conclusion that all women are unfaithful; furthermore, that a faithful woman is an unnatural one. Still, some ambiguity in the way Donne presents this argument allows for a possible second reading of the poem.
Structure in Donne's "Song"
Donne's poem is very simple in form. Metrically, the stanzas adhere to a syllabic pattern of line length (7777 88 22 8) and to a consistent stress pattern. All three stanzas would appear to follow the same rhyme scheme (ABAB CC DDD); however, one rhyme sound crops up more than it would be expected to in the second stanza (EFEF FF GGG) and appears again in the third (HIHI JJ FFF). This repetition lends a sense of unity to the poem, and will also serve a rhetorical purpose.
First Stanza Analysis ("Go and catch a falling star...")
The speaker takes an imperative tone from the very beginning, bidding an addressee accomplish several impossible things and, along the way, “find / What wind / Serves to advance an honest mind” (1-9). The impossibility of this final task is thus implied. But, more than that, the preceding imagery lends such a discovery an unnatural – and even an evil – character. The “mandrake root” (2) and “Devil’s foot” (4) both have obvious negative connotations (Logan et al. 1264 n1). To hear the mermaids singing would be a death sentence (5n), and even the “falling star” could be associated with Lucifer (1).
Even more interestingly, the verbs attached to these images are active ones, tending to involve the addressee in a dominating relationship with them (to catch, to cleave, and to impregnate). To find the wind that “advance[s] the honest mind” (7-9) would therefore – paradoxically – require a perverse character to do the searching, a person who would be willing to vitally enmesh himself with dire and occult knowledge.
Second Stanza Analysis ("If thou be'st born to strange sights...")
Following through on this thought, Donne calls upon one “born to strange sights”, who would see even “invisible things”, to go on this quest (10-11). But for all this favorable disposition to seeing the rare and elusive, Donne assures us that the addressee could travel until he is elderly, and see many strange things indeed, but not find “a woman true, and fair” (14-18).
Donne here reveals that this was the particular kind of honest mind he was referring to in the first stanza, and so might imply that honest men are not so hard to find. Similarly, the grouping together of the words “true” and “fair” suggests that one could find a true woman, the proviso being that she is unattractive (and so privy to fewer opportunities for licentiousness). In other words, any woman would be “untrue” if she could; the natural state of woman is wantonness.
In these same lines, a repetition of the F rhyming sound (“me”, “thee”), where the reader would expect a new sound, underscores Donne’s argument in making the progression of thought feel closed, claustrophobic: no matter where one roams in the world / stanza, one comes upon the same kind of sound / woman.
Third Stanza Analysis ("If thou find'st one, let me know...")
Donne even provides for the unlikely event of the addressee finding a true woman, and so having completed a “sweet” pilgrimage (20) – as opposed to the demonic, dreadful journey described in the first stanza. Notable, here, is that woman’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness, in being equated with either “unnaturalness” or “naturalness”, actually has the power to shape the world that the addressee encounters.
That is, if the journey is “sweet” that ends with a faithful woman, then getting with child a mandrake root, and all the other odd things Donne listed at the beginning, could really turn out to be pleasant pastimes. Donne’s reasoning in this poem is black and white: either he’s right to believe ill of all women, or else all the accepted ideas about the Devil, and shrieking plants, and murderous mermaids, are incorrect.
In driving this point home, he reminds the addressee that “true” is a time-sensitive adjective – that a woman who was true for a particular time is likely, even guaranteed to be false should some time pass (23-27). Again a woman’s faithfulness is ascribed to a lack of opportunity to act otherwise, since Donne is postulating that the woman in question has been false since the addressee left her (i.e., he is no longer there to keep an eye on her).
Alternative Reading of Donne's Poem
Still, John Donne may be making a radical point underneath it all. He certainly allows women agency, as well as the strong conviction to do as they see fit, in insisting on their tendency to change their minds. And if a faithful woman is so satanic, unheard-of, unnatural, could an inconstant one (even if she is operating against Christian morals) then be the ideal? Donne does not go so far as to openly proclaim this, but his argument is still gracious enough to leave this loophole.
Logan et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume B - The Sixteenth Century, The Early Seventeenth Century. Eighth edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006.