“Goe, and catche a falling starre….”

The summer after eighth grade, I read most of a poetry anthology for my required summer reading. I was supposed to pick out a few favorites; I remember choosing John Donne’s “Song: Goe, and catche a falling starre.” I didn’t understand much of it, but it beguiled me. Today it is still one of my favorite poems, and it still beguiles me, though I understand it much better. I will comment a little on it now. This isn’t a thorough analysis, just a look at a few things that fascinate me.

Why not start with the most peculiar moment in the poem: the first four lines of the final stanza? The poem is presumably “about” the impossibility of finding a woman who is both “true, and faire.” But what a strange twist!

If thou findst one, let mee know,
aaSuch a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
aaThough at next doore wee might meet,

In other words, “If you find such a woman, let me know… then again, don’t bother to tell me; it isn’t worth your trouble or mine.” There’s something mischievous about this change of mind, and humorous, too, despite the bitters. What role does it play in the rest of the poem? Let’s look at the first stanza.

Goe, and catche a falling starre,
aaGet with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
aaOr who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,
aaOr to keep off envies stinging,
aaaaAnd finde
aaaaWhat winde
Serves to advance an honest minde.

Much has been said about the assemblage of images and suggestions here. They seem like a rather arbitrary collection of impossibilities, until one looks closer and sees how well orchestrated they are. Each impossibility is of a different kind: physical, sexual, philosophical, theological, mythological, emotional, or, finally, intellectual and spiritual. (These are rough characterizations; each impossibility holds more, of course.) The elusive last three lines, with their playfulness and prolonged trope, make one wonder what kind of “winde” is at stake. Is it a wind that propels sails? Is it false knowledge, false rumor? Is the implication that an honest mind needs something other than wind for advancement (something more substantial), or is it that an honest mind cannot advance, because of the ways of the world?

The second stanza seems to answer the implicit question: it proposes that someone “borne to strange sights” take a voyage until old age and then return with a verdict.

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
aaThings invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
aaTill age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn’st, wilt tell mee
All strange wonders that befell thee,
aaaaAnd sweare
aaaaNo where
Lives a woman true, and faire.

This voyage appears as a complement to the impossible marvels of the first stanza. The traveler may “ride ten thousand daies and nights,” see “strange wonders,” and yet come back with snow-white hairs to tell of nothing: there is no “true and faire” woman to be found. The parallel with the “winde” and the “honest minde” of the first stanza suggests that the travel itself will bring no advancement of mind. In other words, the juxtaposition of “And finde / What winde / Serves to advance an honest minde” with “And sweare / No where / Lives a woman true, and faire” leads one to associate the “winde” with the travel, and the speaker’s own “honest minde” with the outcome. The “honest minde” cannot move forward because there is nothing simultaneously enticing and trustworthy–in particular, no woman with both beauty and truth.

Or is something else keeping the “honest minde” in its place? Now we come to those four lines that I quoted at the outset. Is it possible that the world-weary mind keeps itself from advancing–because as soon as it considers a possibility, it turns back on itself? Is this gesture “Yet doe not” the crux of the poem?

If thou findst one, let mee know,
aaSuch a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
aaThough at next doore wee might meet.

It seems so, as the speaker sees through the illusion that deceives the traveler (and for that reason, he won’t even go next door). The traveler may think he has found a woman “true, and faire”–but the speaker knows better.

Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
aaaaYet shee
aaaaWill bee
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Look at the play of “true” and “false” and the numbers one, two, three (and the implicit zero). There’s also a hidden “first” in the combination of “last” and “false”; so one can also hear “first, next, last” in jumbled order (though “last” appears here in the sense of “endure”). This, and the play of true and false in this and the previous stanza, gives a sense of card-and-number tricks (not entirely unlike those in Alexander Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades“).

What does all of this mean? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the “honest minde” isn’t honest at all–that its act of turning back on itself is a sign of falsity. That doesn’t seem to be Donne’s intent, nor would I go so far beyond his intent. No, this mind is honest but reduced to itself, set against the falsity of woman (and, in a larger sense, the world and its wonders). It need not venture out; after all, if it does, it knows what it will find. Still it conveys this in an adventurous way.

The implicit conundrum is this: to advance, a mind must be somewhat naive, for the mind that considers things rightly has already made its voyages. Yet it goes ahead and sings of them, thus voyaging anyway.

Note: I made some edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Leave a comment

3 Comments

  1. Carol Jago

     /  January 18, 2013

    Every breath in this posting supports your idea that poetry beguiles us. Love, love, love this. http://www.caroljago.com

    Reply
    • Thank you, Carol! Yes, speaking of that, after I posted this piece, I started hearing the poem in a slightly different way: as melancholic, with a hint of yearning. Those first four lines of the last stanza seemed like a flash of futile hope (i.e., “just in case you do find one, let me know”) followed by the old despair (e.g., “ah, it’s no use”). This doesn’t override the earlier reading, though.

      That’s one thing I enjoy about laying out an interpretation: sometimes it turns into a clearing for more.

      Reply
  2. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
    I do not think that they will sing to me.

    Reply

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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