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Analysis of the Poem "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood and "Siren Song"

Siren Song is a poem that takes a different look at the ancient Greek myth of the sirens, the half-bird, half-woman creatures who lured passing sailors to their death with an irresistible song.

Margaret Atwood offers an unusual insight into the character of one of these sirens, by giving it the role of speaker in the poem. The reader is gradually drawn in, and by the fourth stanza is promised personal knowledge of the siren's secret.

This allows for a completely different perspective and introduces a dramatic element, one that heightens the tension between the female and her male victims, between speaker and reader.

Although Margaret Atwood is best known for her novel writing, her poetry is held in high esteem by many. Her subject matter - the social role of women, modern relationship dynamics, and humanity in all its messy splendor - is dealt with in an intelligent and questioning manner.

Siren Song appeared in her book You Are Happy in 1974 and remains a fresh reminder of the ongoing issues women face in a world that has so far been dominated by the actions and words of men.

  • This poem is in a sense a counterbalance to the prevailing power base of the male. It portrays men as basically stupid and helpless, victims of their own lustful curiosity as the siren song draws them onto the fateful rocks, where they crash and perish, or, unable to leave, starve to death.

The classical sirens, Parthenope, Ligea, and Leucosia (there are other variations of name and number) played lyres and flutes and also sang, but different stories, from Ulysses to the Argonauts, give different versions of the generic siren.

All commentaries agree that these creatures were a mix of bird and woman, they had wings and claws and lived on an island. Their songs, when heard, could not be resisted, but, the inevitable outcome of hearing the song guaranteed an awful death.

"Siren Song"

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can't remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

I don't enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,
I don't enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Analysis of "Siren Song": Stanzas 1 - 3

Siren Song is a free verse poem of nine stanzas, with 27 lines in total. There is no rhyme scheme and the meter (meter in British English) has no set pattern, so the rhythms alter from stanza to stanza.

  • The lines are short which means the reader has to focus on a careful read-through. Pauses play an important role in the reading because of enjambment - when a line or stanza continues to the next with no punctuation, maintaining the sense - which occurs in every stanza.

This means that the line breaks and the stanza breaks take on added importance and generally speaking slows the reader down, just as the mythical song might have slowed the passing ships.

  • Overall the tone is intimate, ironic, and confessional. It's as if the speaker is whispering to the reader, drawing them ever closer in, just as the song does with the sailors in the ancient Greek myths.

The first three stanzas help set the scene. The speaker tells of the special song, with no mention of the personal 'I', as if she is on the island surveying the most recent and oldest victims.

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Helplessness is the common theme. The helplessness of men that is. They jump into the sea once they hear the song, eager to meet with the creatures who perform on the island of certain doom.

How ironic it is that the song remains unknown, for those who hear it die, so there's no chance of anyone passing on the lyrics, the melody.

Poor men. Loads of them succumb, despite the obvious consequences. They swim towards death, they crash and perish on the rocks, they starve for want Affection? The magical allure of the feathered women?

Further Analysis of "Siren Song": Stanzas 4 - 9

The reader is encouraged to come a little closer and listen a little harder. The speaker is now a first-person character, wanting to impart a secret. But it's conditional. If she tells the secret then the reader has to get her out of the bird suit.

The bird suit? Yes, the feathery clothing, the mythological cover. Why remove the bird suit? Well, men have been naming women in such terms as 'birds' for ages haven't they?

And what about the terms described for women talking...squawking, clucking, twittering? The term henpecking also is relevant.

  • The reader is being reminded that a gender stereotype builds up over generations, a word or term enters the language and a power base is established. Such words and terms and biases become the norm over time.

The speaker has to squat; she doesn't like this position because it makes her feel out of place, trapped, and somewhat defined by what she has to wear and the physical stance she has to maintain.

Not only that, she doesn't even enjoy the singing; she's disillusioned with her partners too. There's some self-loathing going on. This is the voice of a misfit, someone who is miserable, in no way related to the divine like in the myths.

In the seventh stanza, the repeated I will tell...only to you...the reader, the man...the secret...further convinces - the speaker really is asking for help. Help that can come only from you. This message is reinforced in stanza eight: a personal plea for help, repeated.

And then the devastating conclusion hits home in the final stanza. The siren has done her job, the song has drawn the reader in, and the man, the men, are helpless to resist.

How manipulative, how clever, how awesome. The siren, the woman, didn't really need the man. It was all a ploy. Rescue isn't needed by the male. Boring as it sounds, the song keeps on working.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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