Poem #6: Song by John Donne

“Poetry is prose bewitched.”~Mina Loy

This poem is one of Donne’s early phase, non-religious poems, and it is full of “six impossible things before breakfast.” Yet, even in his pre-Christian days, Donne was familiar with his Bible. Mandrake root: see Genesis 30:14.

GO and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

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.

If thou find’st one, let me know,
Such a 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 come, to two, or three.

DHM: I love the amusing irony at the end, and knowing the greatest irony of all, that Donne became a Christian and married and lost his cynicism about women.
Steve di Bartola: The improbability of true love. I’ve always wondered “what wind serves to advance an honest mind.”

Steve Spanoudis: You might, being critical, complain that this is just a little poem by some guy who had pretty bad luck with the opposite sex and was getting kind of resentful about it. But when the poet is John Donne, you end up with phrases like
…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…
That sound like incantations. Read it twice aloud and I dare you to forget it.

Neocon: The language is archaic, which makes it hard but not too hard. And it’s catchy (pun intended). I memorized it when young, so I can attest to its appeal, including the cynicism it expresses.

1 thought on “Poem #6: Song by John Donne

  1. There’s a delightful YA fantasy, *Howl’s Moving Castle* by Diana Wynne Jones, themed around this poem. (Don’t get the anime movie by the same name, though, it’s incredibly lame.)

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