John Donne's "Goe, and Catche a Falling Starre" as a Metaphysical Poem
Donne's Song: Central Theme
The poem “Goe, and catche a falling starre” is a song, peculiar to Donne, and different from typical Elizabethan lyrical poems. It is connected with women, but is not a poem on womanly love or love for women. In fact, the song is distinctly different from Donne’s usual Love poetry.
The song is actually on feminine inconstancy. Its theme is the lack of fidelity of women. The poet’s point of contention is that no woman, who is both true and fair, can be traced anywhere. This is well struck in the last two lines of the second stanza:
Lives a woman, true and faire.”
However, this is not all. The poet even claims that constancy in women is not only rare, but also short-lasting. Even if a woman be found fair and true, she will change and prove false in no time –
False, ere I come, to two or three.”
Song: Goe and Catche a Falling Starre
Tone of the Poem: Key to Metaphysical Elements
This is, however, no characteristic attitude from Donne. His tone here is playful, rather witty, although it may smack of some sarcasm. In fact, the song represents the metaphysical way to mingle the serious with the light. The subject matter is, no doubt, grave – the inconstancy of women. No fair women can be fair in attachment and devotion. This forms, too, the very serious charge from Hamlet in Shakespeare's great play, after the same name.
“Frailty, thy name is woman.”
But Shakespeare's Hamlet has a serious tone, while Donne’s all light and witty. His wit flashes here and there, as he goes to emphasize feminine frailty. The concepts of getting a child from the root of a mandrake, the Devil’s cleft foot, the visualization of invisible materials are all witty enough.
Furthermore, the poet’s mention of a pilgrimage to see a fair and faithful woman has a slightly sarcastic touch. Even his conclusion that she will be false, ere the poet come, to two or three, has a satiric stroke. But in all these cases, the poet bears out a lively mood fun and mockery to make his song diverting, rather than coldly didactic.
All this marks the intellectualism of metaphysical poetry. The metaphysical style is more intellectual, less emotional, and that is well borne out in Donne’s song. Metaphysical intellectualism turns poetic impulsiveness into prosaic logicality. By means of arguments and analogies, no doubt framed wittily enough, he reaches his central assertion that fair and faithful women are real. Indeed, a chain of diverting points of logic sums up the central theme and arrives at the concluding observation in the typical metaphysical manner.
Precision and Wit: Characteristics of Metaphysical Conceits
The metaphysical poetic style exhibits precision. It does not indulge in elaboration but rather concentrates on conciseness. The rarity of a woman, faithful and fair, or her quickly changing fidelity is precisely but distinctly stated. Therein is found the innate quality of Donne’s song as a piece of metaphysical artistry.
Again, the metaphysical imagery, drawn quite precisely, from a wide field of mythology, Christianity and legends, is more prosaic and commonplace than emotional and elegant. Donne’s song has some rare but very precise images, such as ‘mandrake’s roote’, the Devil’s cleft foot, the mermaid’s music, and so on. The metaphorical analogy of ‘snow white haires’ is well conceived. Of course, such images are very few in number.
The seven impossible tasks (five of which are extremely hilarious jokes), mentioned in the first stanza, for instance, is a distant echo of the Herculean tasks in Classical mythology.
The song also represents the metaphysical mood that combines, as noted already, the serious and the light. It reveals definitely a sceptical and cynical frame of mind that taunts and debunks the nature of a fair woman. The poet mocks at the inconstancy and fickle-mindedness of such a woman. But his mood is lightened with a jesting, fun-making approach that both laughs and lashes. Although his poem is often considered sexist, but there is no reason to doubt his tone of levity and lightheartedness. One should keep reminding oneself that it is the same poet who wrote "The Goodmorrow" and "The Canonization", where he treated his beloved with sincere devotion and appreciation.
The song is written in a regular stanza pattern. There are three stanzas, of nine lines each. The rhyme scheme is exactly of a melodious song, with the first four lines, rhyming alternately, while the fifth line and the sixth and the last three lines separately rhyme together.
The trochaic emphasis on the very first word "Goe" creates a sense of immediacy. It is a characteristic feature of Donne's poem that he right away goes on to establish a sort of intimate rapport with the readers. The tone instantly becomes conversational and personal. This was a pattern Donne maintained to deliberately break away from the distanced poetic voice technique of his predecessors.
Go and Catch: The Modern English Version
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 be'st 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, till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
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A crisp recitation of the poem by Richard Burton
© 2017 Monami