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 beest 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 til you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
Donne's scathing account of women's loyalty (or shocking lack thereof) is interesting to me because of its title and structure. Donne entitles his poem, "Song" and this begs a number of questions: In what formal and structural aspects is this a song? Why sing such an angry account of infidelity? Who is Donne speaking to?
In setting his poem as a "song" Donne creates an expectation in the reader. Generally, readers expect poetry as song to be melodious, and beautiful. This, however, is a harsh poem, full of irregularly cadenced lines. This is not counter intuitive to the idea of song in Donne's time. Madrigals, a through-sung form meant to express in music the meaning of a text, were popular and plentiful. This text would work very well as a through-sung (nothing repeated) work, and there are many musical features that could highlight the irregular cadence of the poem. It would heighten the sense of betrayal and uncertainty that permeates the text. Donne names his poem "Song" to play with our expectations, and then bring us around to the realization that songs, like love, are not always beautiful.
Donne seems to be responding to a friend, who is, perhaps telling him of a love he found, who is fair, and true. Donne, seemingly deeply resentful towards women (some seriously bad experiences, I imagine) breaks down, point by point, how women fit none of the traditional ideals of values ascribed to them. While I can't agree with Donne's outlook on women and fidelity, I do appreciate the strength of emotion that comes through in this poem. His bitter, bitter angry flows, in a way (seemingly) backed by reason and experience. While it's an unreasonable view, Donne is, perhaps, speaking out of experience, and that pain he has felt is clearly captured. Even if his friend found a true woman, and wrote Donne about it, Donne would not go, for he is sure that she would have been untrue by the time Donne arrived. What harsh words!
By placing his anger in the form of a "song" Donne plays with our expectations and reverses our idea of what a "love song" is and how we view women. While I don't agree with Donne's appraisal of women (and I hope you don't either!) his setting of the text as "song" is very thought provoking. What do you think?