A summary of an unusual Donne poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Song’, often known by its first line, ‘Go and catch a falling star’, is an unusual poem among John Donne’s work in several ways. It doesn’t use the extended metaphors that we find in some of Donne’s greatest poetry, and yet it remains one of his most popular and widely known works. As the short analysis of ‘Song’ below endeavours to show, ‘Go and catch a falling star’ is, nevertheless, in keeping with Donne’s beliefs and poetic style in many respects.
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.
Although the poem is songlike – as its title suggests – and its tone is light and frivolous, ‘Go and catch a falling star’ seems to endorse the misogynistic belief that all women (or all beautiful women, anyway – just to make it worse) are unfaithful and shouldn’t be trusted. Yet the way Donne builds to this conclusion is beguiling. In summary, he advises the reader (or, as this is a song, the listener) to perform a series of impossible tasks: catch a ‘falling star’ or meteor in the sky, impregnate a mandrake root, find the past and return it to the present, or discover why the devil has cloven feet.
Similarly, the listener is commanded to hear mermaids singing (possibly a reference to the sirens of Greek mythology, who were actually half-bird; it was impossible, unless you were Odysseus, to hear the sirens’ song and survive). Other impossible commands include finding a cure for the ‘sting’ of envy, and what wind exists that can help an honest mind to get on in life.
In the second stanza, the impossibilities continue: Donne’s speaker says that if you seek strange sights – things which are invisible, even – then ride for ten thousand days till you’re old and your hair is white (‘ten thousand days and nights’ is just over 27 years, if you’re wondering), and when you return, you’ll be able to tell Donne’s speaker about all the strange things you saw, and also, you’ll be prepared to swear that truly faithful and beautiful women do not exist. (In other words, if women are ‘fair’ or attractive, they will not be true to you.)
The final stanza might be summarised as follows: ‘If you do manage to find a woman who is both faithful and beautiful, let me know – a journey to find such a woman would be worth it. But having said that, even if she were next door and you wrote to tell me to come and see her, before I’d managed to make the journey to meet her, she would have been unfaithful to several men.’
Can we still enjoy a poem that seems to be so down on half the human race? (Or the beautiful section of that half, leastways: poor unattractive women can apparently be trusted to remain true, presumably because Donne’s speaker thinks no one else would want them.) This aspect of Donne’s poem – and the problem is not confined to ‘Go and catch a falling star’ – has exercised critics for a while now.
Christopher Ricks, in his Essays in Appreciation, has a good essay on what Ricks sees as the unhealthy endings to many of Donne’s poems: they seem to become uncharitable as they reach conclusion. But Ricks’s issue with this poem in particular is not its misogyny (which loses its power to offend by being such a worn-out complaint) but the fact that the poem’s ending seems false to itself: it goes against what the rest of the poem promises. William Empson, who was heavily influenced by Donne and wrote extensively on his poetry, said of ‘Go and catch a falling star’ that ‘the song had aimed at being gay and flippant but turned out rather heavy and cross’.
Conversely, for another great Donne critic, John Carey, ‘Go and catch a falling star’ is more about self-improvement than women: the earlier sections of the poem, enjoining the listener to go out into the world and make discoveries and see strange sights, is the real core of the poem’s meaning, in Carey’s analysis.
Certainly such a reading connects to Donne’s preoccupation with space travel and exploration (something Empson, in his essay ‘Donne the Space-man’, explored; the idea of discovery and exploration is also there in ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’, with its reference to the woman’s body as ‘my America! my new-found-land’). How should we view the poem? Or does it derive its vital energy from offering both the exploration motif and the complaint about women in one poem? Can we overlook the negative twist at the end? That may depend on our view of Donne’s other poems.
The best affordable edition of Donne’s poetry is John Donne – The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). It comes with very useful annotations and an informative introduction. Continue to explore Donne’s poetry with our analysis of his poem ‘The Canonization’, our discussion of his ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, and our summary of his classic seduction poem, ‘The Flea’. If you’re studying poetry, we recommend checking out these five books for the student of poetry. We’ve offered more tips for the close reading of poetry here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.