Tuesday, September 17, 2013

John Donne: Song (“Goe And Catche A Falling Starre”): A Reading

I may be offered a paying-gig working on a text to introduce high-school students to some canonical (public domain) poems in the "Common Core Curriculum." Since I hated poetry in high-school (largely because of the way it's taught), I find writing a "sample essay" to be a daunting task--especially as I try to simplify my grad-school theory-speak, but I need a job....so it's worth a shot. Here's one of my first attempts to speak to high school students in writing.

John Donne: Song (“Goe And Catche A Falling Starre”): A Reading

I. Starting From The Ending

When I first read “Goe And Catche A Falling Starre,” the lines that jumped out for me were the simplest, seemingly most direct lines in the poem: “No where/Lives a woman true, and fair.” If that wasn’t enough, Donne concludes: “Yet she/ Will be/ false, ere I come, to two or three.” The message seems clear, and, indeed, many others read this early poem of John Donne’s in a similar way. As one critical analysis puts it, Donne “argues that is impossible to find a woman who is both attractive and faithful to one man.”[1] Another writer even goes so far as to say “he blames the evilness of woman for his pain and heartbreak.”[2]

Since most other people take this as the point of the poem, it got me thinking of John Donne’ character. Is he just heartbroken or is this a cynical, misogynistic, stance? Is John Donne a bragging rakish swashbuckler, a “scorner of love,” like the character Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing?  Is he a young, bratty, punk like the young Mick Jagger or the young rappers who sing about ‘bitches and hos”? Does he even believe what he’s saying? And, if he believes what he’s saying, what does he propose to do about it? Is he going to simply ignore women for the rest of his life? Or has he just given up looking for a woman who is both attractive and faithful, and will choose one or the other?

There’s two ways to do that, of course: there’s a much more recent song (though it’s an oldie from the early 1960s) that sings: “If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life/never make a pretty woman your wife/so from my personal point of view/ get an ugly girl to marry you.” Is John Donne’s “Song” saying that? Or is he choosing the “fair” woman over the “true” woman, and saying since she’s going to play the field, I might as well play the field too! Is the poem, then, simply a defense of his inconstancy?

Even that simple statement in the last line suggests a double meaning with its strained syntax: “Yet she/will be/ False, ere I come, to two, or three.” While the commas make it clear that he means, “she will be false to two or three,” when you hear the poem, it sounds like he’s saying “she will be false ere I come to two or three.” When I heard this, I knew I had to go deeper into the poem. I wondered, are we all, in fact, asking the wrong questions, and taking the lines out of context?

II. Looking At Those Lines In Context Of The Poem

There’s a lot of other information in the poem than these lines, which are the hook that gets most of the attention, there’s no need to read a biography of John Donne in hope it will tell us the author’s real intention (poets usually don’t tell you their intention, and even when they do, they may not even entirely know themselves).

III. The First Stanza

The more one looks at “Song (Go And Catch A Falling Star),” the more complex the seemingly simply moral (or immoral, amoral, moral) becomes, and each stanza becomes more dramatically complex than the previous one. The poem actually has three characters: I (the writer); “thou”(the male it is addressed to); and “she” (the hypothetical woman in the third stanza)—though they aren’t really put into relationship with each other until this last stanza.

In the first stanza, there is no mention of this woman, or of women in general, but we do see the writer talking to this male reader (though we don’t know he’s a male yet).[3] He’s either commanding or asking the reader to do a series of tasks. Some of them are clearly impossible—and the stuff fantasy is made of. But many people still turn to writing, or movies, for fantasies such as these (from The X-Men to The Littlest Mermaid). Is it really impossible to “find/what wind/ Serves to advance an honest mind?” That question may be at least as important as any statement Donne makes about women at the end of the poem.[4] Donne himself can’t answer that question, but the second stanza tells us more about who Donne it talking to, and satirizing.

IV. Second Stanza

 “If thou be’est born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights…”

He’s clearly talking to a young man, who fancies himself an epic-poet, or fantasy story-teller, just like the most poetry that was more fashionable, and famous in the Elizabethan Era (Spenser’s Epic The Fairy Queen and Sir Phillip Sidney’s Astrophil And Stella) of the 1590s when Donne wrote this poem. Like Shakespeare’s Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), he doesn’t believe these “fairy tales,” but tries to look at them with the eyes of cool reason.[5] And here’s where the deeper point of the poem becomes evident:
“Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All the strange wonders that before me,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true, and fair”

In context, Donne is not saying that he believes this is the case, he’s saying that “thou wilt tell me” that. The man has now spent 10, 000 days, and he’s 27 years older, with “snow-white” hairs, and has wasted his whole life on “living the dream” and still is wondering why he can find a singing mermaid, etc.! Why? Is it possible the reason that “thou” wilt tell him that is because he’s what we would call “a hopeless romantic” or a restless “desperado” who is so busy travelling, wandering the earth in his magical, heroic, quest, like Don Quixote dreaming the impossible dream, that his character cannot settle down enough to let this woman love him, even if she were staring him in the face? Certainly he’s less “fair” than he was 27 years earlier. The passage of Time becomes an issue: a young man and woman may be fair, but as we get older we’re supposed to lose that “fairness.” It becomes a ridiculous ideal to hold onto.
V. The Third Stanza
The third stanza makes it even clearer that Donne’s main focus is to satirize this particular type of male attitude toward life, as well as to love (and women). And here’s where the poem get most interesting and dramatic, and the three characters  are put into an imagined relationship with each other:

“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.

Looking at the whole stanza, the emphasis of Donne’s primary satire remains on this self-proclaimed “pilgrim of love.” The confidence with which Donne writes: “Yet do not, I would not go” needs to be emphasized, because it reveals, beyond a doubt, that all the “commands” he was giving earlier in the poem were put-ons, mocking those who already think and write that way. Because “I” now enters so boldly, the sharp contrast between him and “you” becomes clearer than it had been before:

Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter”

He purposely doesn’t say whom the letter is written to. Some readers assume that the letter is written to the “speaker”—to Donne himself, [6] but there’s nothing in the poem to confirm that. He writes “let me know;” that could be a letter, but it could also be verbal (they didn’t have phones back then). Yet poets do write love-letters to women—and sometimes the letter may change the way the woman feels about the man, for the worse (in fact, many of Shakespeare’s plays are based on women mocking a letter written by a man protesting his love, and calling her “fair and true.”). Even if he can’t prove that this letter was written to the woman, it’s at least as plausible as the reading that the letter is to Donne. The woman remains silent in Donne’s “Song,” but Donne is well versed in the art of love to know that women often respond this way to such men.

This is the subject of the real satire. Donne’s telling this fanciful “pilgrim” that your letter can make this woman false; if your unrealistic attitudes toward life and love are any indication, your letter will certainly fail to convince her of your truth just as your poetry does!  As a writer, he gives a lot of importance to this letter, and boldly announces he’s a different kind of writer and person: a thinker. In fact, she may even be false to you (ere I come) because she’s with Donne! She might even end true to Donne. He’s not denying that women can be “false” to “two, or three,” but that could be just a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, once they learn more about this travelling man who has been chasing after “her.”

“Song” is indeed a poem about misogyny, but it’s primarily about the seemingly hidden kind of misogyny that happens when a writer over-idealizes a woman. This over-idealization had become a convention and even a cliché in 16th Century European poetry, and Shakespeare also satirized this in his later dark lady sonnets. Today, you find a similar attitude of over-idealization of the woman in many popular songs. As one woman put it, “you just put women on a pedestal so you can look up our dresses.”

VI. Meter And Rhyme Scheme: Suggestion For Further Reading

[1] http://www.skoool.ie/skoool/examcentre_sc.asp?id=1182
[3] as the gradesaver puts it, “an unseen actor (who can be interpreted as another young man, or perhaps the poet himself), http://www.gradesaver.com/donne-poems/study-guide/section5/
[4] In this line Donne makes it clear that he’s genuinely looking to learn something; he doesn’t just want a sweet, pretty poem or song; he wants what the 20th century literary critic Kenneth Burke calls “equipment for living.”
[5] (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1, 1-18)

[6] For instance—“ by the time the traveler’s letter was written to Donne telling him of her beauty and loyalty, she would have become unfaithful to two or even three men.”

No comments:

Post a Comment