The reader is told to do impossible things such as catching a meteor or finding a "true and fair" woman after a lifetime of travels. The poet wishes he could go and see such a woman if she existed, but he knows that she would turn false by the time he got there.
The poem simply titled “Song” is often referred to by its opening line, “Goe, and catche a falling starre” to distinguish it from other poems published as Donne’s Songs and Sonnets. This 27-line poem is deceptively light, upon first reading, as so much of Donne’s poetry appears. On the surface, it suggests attitudes about love and the relations between the sexes, but once again Donne’s poem carries a spiritual metaphor. The tone is lightly satirical, with deeper truths peeking out from underneath the poet’s assumed worldliness and cynicism.
The meter for this poem is slightly unusual for Donne. It is not a typical “song” meter, even though that is its title. The title “Song” also gives a certain lightness and flippancy to the poem which is matched by the early lines about doing impossible things. The early lines prepare us for a cynical perspective that calls to mind the attitude of the jaded courtier singing to a collection of adults who are well-schooled in the vagaries of love.
The meter—tetrameter punctuated by monometer iambic lines—creates excellent and interesting pauses in the middle of stanzas. It is typical of Donne to surprise his reader, but usually not with tricks of meter that are so blatant. The short lines, which introduce the final line of each stanza, add greatly to the musical quality of the poem. One might imagine a male singer accompanying himself, perhaps, with a lute, and pausing to strum “And sweare/No where” or “Yet shee/Will be” with a wry or joking look towards his audience. The short lines act like a caesura (a poetic pause or breath) for the stanzas, setting up the surprising final lines. For example, “Serves to advance an honest minde” is surprising because it reverses the frivolous tone of the earlier lines about impossible tasks. Near the end of the stanza the poet suddenly asks serious questions: what can cure the sting of envy, and how can an honest mind advance?
On the surface, the three stanzas progress to a cynical assertion of the nature of womankind. The poet begins with a series of impossible orders to an unseen actor (who can be interpreted as another young man, or perhaps the poet himself), such as, “catch a falling starre,/Get with child a mandrake root” (1-2). A mandrake root was a mythical root in medieval lore, said to grow under hanged men, and also to be useful somehow with witchcraft. It would scream when pulled up.
But then the poet becomes more serious and says, “Tell me, where all past yeares are” (3), suggesting sadness in the mention of the loss of past years. Like meteors, moments of one’s life whiz by and are lost forever, although the most weighty meteors will leave remnants on earth. That this solemnity creeps into the poem at this early point is a foreshadowing of the conclusion in the third stanza.
While hearing “mermaids singing” may not be a universal human desire, the next line’s desire to keep away “envy’s stinging” (6) is one almost everyone has shared. These strange juxtapositions of fantastic desires and real human longings are jarring, which leads into the desire to find out how to separate fantasy from reality, that is, how to “advance an honest mind” (9). Yet, as part of the same list, is this goal just another impossibility?
Also part of the list is finding a woman who is “both true and faire.” Is a beautiful and faithful woman possible to find, even if one travels for 10,000 days and, significantly, nights? The poet would go to her; “Such a pilgrimage were sweet” (20), but the poet cannot believe that such a woman exists. The poet goes so far to say, in the wry ending of the last stanza, that even if the traveler were to find such a one, and she were as close by as next door, that 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. The fantastical constructions in the beginning of the poem accentuate the mythical quality of this most longed-for character, the beautiful and faithful woman.
This hyperbole leads us, as usual, to see Donne’s spiritual point. This poem is not just about misogyny or even a sincere statement about the alleged infidelity of women. Yes, on the surface the poem could read as a way for a young, scorned lover to cope with a woman who was false to him. And misogyny in love poems, read with a contemporary lens, might even seem like a convention in seventeenth-century poetry. Yet, a spiritual reading suggests a gender-neutral criticism of fallen humanity. As much as people may pledge themselves to be true to the divine, they fall short and might sin two or three times in the course of an afternoon. People are false the world over.