Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850
“Siren Song,” by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood, is spoken by one of the sirens of classical mythology. Sirens were often imagined as figures who were partly women and partly birds. They sat along sea coasts and sang songs so appealing that the mariners who heard this singing might easily be lured to their deaths, often by shipwreck. Often the sirens were supposed to be three in number, a detail that seems implied by Atwood’s text. In this poem, one of the sirens, bored with her literally monotonous life, reveals the secret nature of the sirens’ singing.
The phrasing of the poem is simple, plain, and straightforward. There is nothing especially enchanting or mysterious about this particular siren’s song. Instead, it is a rather prosaic work about singing that is legendarily sublime.
The poem begins by asserting that everyone would like to learn how to sing in irresistible ways. Presumably people desire to learn such singing not only because it is supposedly beautiful but also because it involves enormous power. Irresistible singing gives the singer immense influence over listeners; such singing, at least in classical mythology, is enough to lure men to their deaths (4-6). As Atwood’s siren describes the effects of such singing, she makes it sound all the more mysterious and intriguing. The more she speaks of its results, the more we want to know of its nature.
Yet just when the siren has begun to exert the very kind of enticing influence she describes, the tone of the poem suddenly changes from the sublime to the ridiculous:
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit? (10-12)
The phrase “bird suit” is totally unexpected and is quite funny for that very reason. Up until this point, the siren might have seemed pleased with her singing and with her status as a powerful temptress. Lines 11-12, however, make her sound quite contemporary and exasperated. She is tired of her cramped, limited, perhaps even bogus role.
Further sarcastic comedy enters the poem when she mentions “squatting” on an island (14) “with these two feathery maniacs” (16). Rather than being a song of enticement, hers is a song of frustrated complaint. She sounds like a modern feminist who is tired of playing a conventional role. Indeed, part of the “point” of the poem may be to mock the whole idea of femmes fatale. One might assume that a female with this much power would enjoy it, but this female, at least, seems utterly bored with her unending role. She prefers freedom to the kind of bogus authority that actually robs her of any individual identity. She wants to live a real and genuine life rather than being looked at as someone who is merely “picturesque and mythical” (15).
In line 19, the focus shifts from the speaker herself to an enticing promise: she will reveal the secret of the sirens’ song, either to an internal listener she is addressing, or to the poem’s reader(s), or to both. Instantly we are intrigued: we, at last, will learn the nature of the singing that is so famously powerful and so notoriously destructive. We will enjoy the power of knowing the power of the sirens. Having first mocked the whole idea of being a siren, the siren now nevertheless lures us. She seems unconventionally conventional. We wonder what fascinating secret she is about to reveal.
At first the song of the sirens seems to play on our most generous and selfless impulses:
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique . . . (22-24)
Yet even as such singing seems to appeal to our most altruistic instincts, it also, paradoxically, plays on our pride and self-centeredness (“You are unique”). In this respect as in many others, Atwood’s poem is witty, playful, but also serious. The destructive song of the sirens, it turns out, appeals both to our generosity and (especially) to our selfishness. We all want to think of ourselves as special and distinctive. We all want to assume that we, only we, can save the day. (Perhaps this is especially true of men in relation to women, at least from a feminist point of view.) We all want to think that we are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time. (25-27)
These final lines, with their wry, humorous cynicism, typify the tone of much of the poem. Atwood joins a classical mythological subject to a modern, colloquial style (as in “it works every time”). She plays with sounds (as in the juxtaposition of “at last” and “Alas”), and she exploits paradoxes here as in many of her other poems. (Thus, a song that is “boring” to its singer is nevertheless inevitably effective in its appeal to listeners.) A song that plays on the desire to help others (especially on the desire of males to help females) leads to the destruction of the would-be saviors. A song that appeals to our selflessness is also anchored in our pride.
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