John Donne enforced a tight structure on his song Go and Catch a Falling Star (1630), with three stanzas each containing sestets with a rhyme scheme of ababcc and concluding with a rhyming triplet. That controlled format contrasts with the light tone used throughout, appropriate to a song about romance. However, as might be expected from Donne, the lyrical approach is undercut by a cynicism regarding the constancy of women. The speaker suggests that women who can be trusted are rare in lines Donne uses ironically to mimic the serious romance poetry of his age.
The first stanza begins with an order, the imperative, Go and catch a falling star, an obviously impossible task but presented as if it could be accomplished. The second line, “Get with child a mandrake root,” appears nonsensical, but Donne is probably referring to the mandrake root because of the mythology that surrounded it. In fables the mandrake took on human characteristics. Its three-to four-foot brown root mimicked the shape of a human, was said to scream when jerked from the ground, and in medieval times was said to be used in witchcraft. Old drawings often depicted the root as male or female, depending on the number of branches it bore. The mandrake produced flowers that developed into fruit, nicknamed “Satan’s apples.”
The allusion to Satan connects the plant imagery with the next two lines: “Tell me where all past years are, / Or who cleft the devil’s foot.” The gently taunting voice continues with mythological references, “Teach me to hear mermaids singing, / Or to keep off envy’s stinging.” Because mermaids were believed to be halfwoman and half-beast and to lure sailors to their death, the theme of temptation, supported by the devil imagery, extends through those lines. Feminist critics would later find interesting the presumably male speaker’s requesting that a female teach him to hear the mermaid’s deadly song, “Or,” conversely, teach him not to be jealous in resisting the sting of envy. That male attitude contradicts the attitude of distrust found in the remainder of the stanza. However, if the reader accepts that Donne’s topic was the inconstancy of women, the idea of a dishonest female’s tempting man may also be suggested through irony in the final rhyming triplet, “And find / What wind / Serves to advance an honest mind.” Things carried on the wind proved insubstantial, suffering a fleeting existence, conditions the speaker bestows on honesty in a female.
In the second stanza, Donne continues his suggestion of the mystical as the speaker declares, 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. He parodies the theme of eternal love found in traditional romance poetry with the use of an enormous number to illustrate the lengths to which a true lover’s dedication extends. Appropriate to the work of the metaphysical poets and poetry, Donne inserts a surprising use of words, converting the adjective and noun phrase snow white hairs to a verbal, with “hairs” becoming a verb suggesting aging over time. The line might be paraphrased, “Until age, which is snow white, places hairs on thee.” The speaker mocks his listener through repetition of the term thou in the next line, noting that when she returns, she must tell him her tale: “Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me, / All strange wonders that befell thee.” He may ironically suggest that, because of her inconstancy, she is not likely to return, and if she does, she will lie about the “strange wonders” that drew her away. Donne then makes another skillful turn as the speaker concludes, “And swear / No where / Lives a woman true and fair.” He suggests that out of all the wonders his listener observed over the thousand days, one of those was not a constant woman; she does not exist, even as a curiosity.
At the beginning of the final verse, Donne keeps alive hope for the discovery of a faithful woman, which would be a highly valued goal for any long journey: “If thou find’st one, let me know, / Such a pilgrimage were sweet.” By using the term pilgrimage, he evokes thoughts of religion or a spiritual creed requiring a quest. However, the speaker declares that while his listener might travel far for such a prize, he would not even step next door to meet such a woman should the traveler write to him of her existence, as she would probably have changed by the time he arrived. Thus, no news of that discovery need be sent to the speaker:
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.
The stanza ends with another simple, but this time more forceful, triplet that leaves no doubt regarding woman’s inherent temperament: “Yet she / Will be / False, ere I come, to two, or three.” Because the last stanza deals with a search for a woman, a traditional prize of classic and medieval quests, Donne may suggest the speaker addresses a man in the final stanza, rather than the woman he has addressed in the first two stanzas. However, his sense of irony could be strengthened were a woman sent on the “pilgrimage,” as the woman embarking on the search would not be a “true” one.
In his song, Donne comes full circle. He began urging his listener to attempt an impossible feat, that of catching a star in the process of falling. He concludes by warning that same listener that as soon as one believes a true woman has been located, she will also fall, quicker than “one, two, three,” disproving his theory that an honest woman exists.
Chambers, E. K., ed. Poems of John Donne. Vol. 1. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896.