Today I want to talk about a rather odd poem by John Donne (1572-1631). I will give it in its old spelling. Many find it rather difficult because of its old-fashioned language. It is one of those poems that sound rather magical and mysterious, like Shakespeare’s Full Fathom Five, and that is part of its appeal. In fact I am discussing it today because it is re-used in a rather clever way in the book Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, a story in which magic plays a major part.
Listed as one of the “songs” of John Donne, it gives a very negative picture of the reliability of pretty women. This was not an uncommon theme in the literature of the 17th century. Even in the late 1500s Thomas Nash had written in his Anatomy of Absurdity,
“Democritus accounted a faire chaste woman a miracle of miracles, a degree of immortality, a crowne of tryumph, because shee is so harde to be found.”
Of course there are many women with negative experiences who might well say the same of the male gender, but that was not the spirit of the times.
Here is the poem stanza by stanza:
Goe, and catche a falling starre,
Get with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
Or who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,
Or to keep off envies stinging,
Serves to advance an honest minde.
The point is that all of these actions are things impossible to do, and Donne’s point, as we shall see, is that just as these things are impossible, so it is just as impossible to find a woman both attractive and faithful.
In Donne’s time it was not generally known that “falling stars” were actually fragments of space rock burning as they entered the earth’s atmosphere. Even Thomas Jefferson was reputed (whether accurately or not) to have said he did not believe stones could fall from the sky.
The mandrake (mandragora) was a plant noted in old magic and medicine. Its root, often divided into two stalks reminiscent of human legs, reminded people so much of a human body that they fancied it really was a kind of miniature human plant creature. It was even believed that when it was pulled from the ground, it gave a shriek that could drive the person hearing it mad (J. K. Rowling makes use of this shriek in her “Harry Potter” tale), so dogs were used to pull the roots. Some mandrake roots were believed to be male, some female, thus the odd and impossible notion of a human getting a mandrake root pregnant. “Get with child” here means to make the root pregnant (with child), not to use a child to obtain a mandrake root. Mandrakes were associated with fertility; it was believed that the yellowish fruits were an aphrodisiac, but the leaves were thought to prevent conception.
Time was (and is) a mystery; where do years gone by disappear to?
In old religious imagery, the Christian Devil was believed to be an evil being who had cloven hoofs, that is, a hoof divided into two halves. This picture likely came from the old Greek religion with its half-man, half-goat satyrs and fauns, and of course from the Greek god Pan, a nature deity who was also the cause of panic.
Hearing mermaids singing might be thought a pleasant thing, but Donne here considers it an impossibility. One variant text of this line reads “Who ever heard a Mermayd singing….” T. S. Eliot likely had this line in mind when he wrote in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,
“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each;
I do not think that they will sing to me.”
Avoiding the sting, the pain and discomfort caused by envy was also considered an impossibility, because envy is a common trait among humans, even very young ones.
Sailors knew which wind blew their ships to the Indies or to France, but which wind served to advance the cause of an honest mind?
If thou beest borne to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
Till age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn’st, wilt tell mee
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true, and faire.
If a man were born able to see strange sights, having the “second sight” which today we would call being psychic, if he were able to see things invisible to others, and if he were to ride on a journey taking ten thousand days and nights, a journey so long that age would turn his hair white, then we he returned, he might tell the author of the poem of all the strange and wondrous things he had seen. But still he would swear that nowhere on his journey had he found a woman both beautiful and faithful.
If thou findst one, let mee know,
Such a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
Though at next doore wee might meet,
Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
The poet says to the traveller, “If you find one, let me know.” It would be a sweet journey to go and see her. But, the poet adds as an afterthought, even if you were to find one, do not bother to tell me. Because even though she might be as close as next door, and even though she might have been true/faithful when you found her, by the time you write a letter informing me of her, she would still have been unfaithful to two or three men by the time I could get to her.
The poem has an element of biting humor, but it is a kind of humor we do not much appreciate today because it is all at the expense of women. That may be one reason why Diana Wynne Jones inserted it for a witty counter-purpose in Howl’s Moving Castle (yes, the Hayao Miyazaki animated film based on the book is pleasant, but altered somewhat from the original book, which you will want to read to get the full effect).