John Donne Questions and Answers

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What is the theme of the poem "Song: Go and catch a falling star" by John Donne?  

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The poem centers on descriptions of the impossible and fantastic, with the speaker imploring the reader to chase after the impossible, to try and "catch a falling star" and "ride ten thousand days and nights," and in this journey, to seek the knowledge of "where all past years are," "who cleft the devils foot," how "to hear mermaids singing," and how "to keep off envy's stinging."

At the end of the second stanza, the poem turns, claiming that having made this fantastic journey, the reader will no doubt conclude that "no where / lives a woman true, and fair." As with most good poetry, this turn adds new meaning to what previously might have seen like random examples. Asking "where all past years are" suggests a sense of regret or of feeling like the speaker had wasted time chasing the impossible. The devil brings to mind lies and betrayal. Mermaids suggest classic, misogynistic depictions of women tempting men and leading them to their doom. And envy suggests the speaker's inability to be content, perhaps contributing to his inability to find a relationship he's happy with.

The poem is frustrating in many ways, and it's hard to see it as anything but misogynistic. But regardless of authorial intent or the misogyny of the speaker, we can go beyond writing the poem off as misogynistic. For example, perhaps the speaker is unable to find a long-lasting romantic relationship specifically because he is searching for a mystical, impossible kind of love, rather than letting it arise organically from actual connections with others?

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This poem—whose actual title is "Song," although it is often referred to by its first line—is, for the first several stanzas, light and enchanting, with a disappointing final stanza which seems to turn on its head what the reader first assumes to be the poem's theme. Donne's speaker encourages the reader to pursue a series of things seemingly beyond reach: "catch a falling star," "keep off envy's stinging" and so on. Pursuit of these things, the speaker seems to suggest, will "advance an honest mind," because even if we are unable to encounter "things invisible to see," the pursuit of the impossible will enrich us as human beings.

At the end of the poem, however, the speaker reveals that this focus upon impossible things has been leading up to the idea that "no where / Lives a woman true, and fair." In the final stanza, the speaker says that even if the reader were to find a true (faithful) woman somewhere, the speaker would not bother to go and investigate, because by the time he reached her, she would have become "false, ere I come, to two or three." So, ultimately the theme of this poem is the untrustworthiness and unreliability of women, a disappointingly misogynistic conclusion to a poem which appears, at first glance, to be an encouragement to all to pursue the seemingly impossible and thus improve ourselves.

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