Analysis of Go and Catch a Falling Star by John Donne


John Donne along with the other metaphysical poets made fun of the weaknesses and the fickleness of women. On the surface Donne’s “Song: Go and catch a falling star” which was published in 1633, appears to be an assertion of the deviousness and the vagaries of women during his time. The implication of his poem is that just as it is difficult to achieve the plethora of tasks he orders the unseen young man or the reader, it is nearly impossible to find a woman who is both “true and fair”, or beautiful as well as faithful.

Donne has employed many poetic devices such as allusion, alliteration, hyperbole, imagery and metaphor in this poem. As commonly seen in metaphysical poetry diverse images have been used to exaggerate the difficulty in finding a beautiful and faithful woman.

 

Metaphysical Poets

Metaphysical poets are identified as a group of 17th century English poets whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits and by a greater emphasis on the spoken rather than lyrical quality of their verse. John Donne is widely recognized as a metaphysical poet lived in 16th century and he is considered as the leading figure of this poetic movement.

The Metaphysical convention was greatly influenced by the Renaissance Period (14-16 centuries) where everything was questioned including the field of literature. Here the traditional courtly love style (which was a prominent subject matter in Elizabethan poetry) was questioned.

 

Metaphysical features found in the poem

  • Arguments and analysis
  • Less emotional and more intellectual
  • Use of conceits (unusual comparisons)
  • Full of rich ideas (More matters, less words)
  • Arises from moment of experience or situation (real)

 

Structure

  • Title is the first line of the poem. (Usual characteristic of most Donne’s poem)
  • 09 lines consists of varied syllables (7x4, 8x2, 2x2, 7x1)
  • 03 stanzas (Rhyme ABABCCDDD)
  • Lyrical, meant for singing.
  • Dramatic monologue.
  • Extended metaphysical conceits.
  • Light and humorous tone. (cynical and satirical)
  • Theme: Inconsistency of women/ infidelity of women, in spiritual view: about fallen humanity.
  • Speaker: a man who disbelieve in faithful women suggesting male chauvinism.

 

Deep end analysis

First Stanza

Go and catch a falling star,

Get with a child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

Or who cleft the devil’s foot,

Teach me to hear mermaid’s singing,

Or to keep off envy’s stinging,

And find

What wind

Serves to advance an honest mind.

 

Metaphor: falling star (falling of an angel – refers to the falling of Lucifer who fell from the heaven to hell because of betrayal to the god) Refers to the women who fell from virtue and fidelity.

Allusions: mandrake root (a human shaped root which is commonly associated with witchcraft. /black magic, you might have watched this in Harry Potter film – The Chamber of Secrets)

Devil’s cleft foot (related to the feet of devil which is divided into two like hooves of a calf) Here the poet challenges the reader to find the creator who designed the devil.

Mermaid singing (related to Sirens who are mythical creatures consists of a human head and body like a bird, found in Homer’s Odyssey, they lure sailors from their enchanting singing and it was said that Odysseus ordered his crew to pour wax into their ears and bind themselves with ropes to be saved from their enchantment) 

Imperatives/apostrophe: Starts the poem with a command preparing the reader to move and in the next moment he/she understands that it is impossible to fulfil the commands given.

Visual imagery: falling star

Enjambment: run on line

Caesura (a pause which is a rhythmical pause in a poetic line or a sentence) gives a lyrical value and dramatic nature to the poem.) “And find” // “what wind”

 

The extended conceit which is seemingly impossible generates the first half of the comparison: to depict the impossibility to find a woman who is fair and honest. Here the poet gives seven challenges to an unknown young man or the reader to fulfill: to catch a falling star, to get impregnated with a mandrake root, to find who designed the foot of the devil, to teach the poet how to keep away from feelings like hatred and jealousy, to teach the poet how to listen the luring siren’s singing and finally to find what natural condition makes people honest. These challenges shift from personal needs to personal interests. (real to mythical) They are seemingly absurd to be used to compare a woman. However, This is the salient feature of Metaphysical poetry – the use of conceits, unusual comparisons.    

 

Second Stanza

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,

And swear

No where

Lives a woman true and fair.

 

Conditional: If  

Hyperbole: ten thousand days and nights (27 years)

Visual imagery: white hairs on thee

 

In the second stanza the poet says, if the reader has the ability to see “strange sights” or to see “things invisible” then he should go ten thousand days and nights, till he has hair white with age in search of a woman who is both “true and fair” or beautiful as well as faithful. The speaker says even after such drawn-out journey he would still come and say that it was impossible to find such a woman.

 

Third Stanza

If thou find’st one, let me know;

Such 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,

Yet she

Will be

False, ere I came, to two or three.

 

Subjunctive: were (shows disbelief of the poet in finding such a woman)

Anaphora: though (emphasizes the less consistency of the woman)

Caesurae: yet do not // I would not go (implies hesitation) yet she // will be (provides time for the reader to think and enter the final argument)

 

The last stanza begins with the poet saying that if the reader somehow found such a woman, it would be a rewarding “pilgrimage” to even go and see such a unique woman. Then again he asks the reader not to let him know of the existence of such a woman even if she lived next door, as she would prove to be unfaithful at least to two or three men by the time the reader wrote a letter to the speaker about her, although she could have been both “true and fair” when the reader first found her. Note that the poet gets involved with the reader as ‘we’ and isolate woman as ‘she’ depicting male chauvinism. The conclusion of the central argument is brought out in the last two lines: the impossibility to find a woman who is true and fair.

Sometimes it is a bit hard to unwrap John Donne’s poetry as his use of conceits. Though seemingly absurd, when we look closely, they carry meaningful connotations. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the underlying meaning of those conceits to understand the lines better. We took much structural approach to analysis for you to understand the poem better for exam and study purposes. If you have any suggestions to be made, please leave a comment below. Share this post if you find it useful to others.

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