Song by John Donne: Summary & Analysis

Song by John Donne: Summary & Analysis
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

'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.

Synopsis

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 find

What wind

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,

And swear,

No where

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,

Yet she

Will be

False, ere I come, to two, or three.'

Analysis

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.

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