This poem has a special place in my heart. It was featured in one of my favorite books Howl’s Moving Castle.
The poem is featured in the book, it’s someone’s English homework, but the characters in the story seem to think that it’s the wizard Howl’s new magical spell. And there does seem to be a bit of magic to it with its falling stars and mandrake roots, devil’s feet, plus you must ride ten thousand days and nights (could Ali Baba do such a thing?). Plus you must “be borne to strange sights,/Things invisible to see.”
I like this poem even though it doesn’t like me. It’s about how all women are false. A break-up poem perhaps? It makes bold claims that a man could go out and see mermaids singing or cleft a devil’s foot, but never, never something as magical as an honest woman.
I won’t be too hard on John Donne, I’ve heard many women make the same claim about men, convinced that an honest one couldn’t possibly exist. But I don’t think that’s true either.
Instead I like what the book did with the poem. Yup, women lie, it’s true and often to themselves most of all, but this isn’t the soul provenance of women and a lie isn’t always used for devious means. And sometimes a lie is not a lie, but a cover for a deeper truth. A sugar coated pill. Fiction itself is a lie used to tell a deeper truth, something that can’t easily be said in straight forward terms. Much like this poem wouldn’t mean very much if the poet just ranted on and on about how false women are.
And I think that there is a deeper truth to the world, something that cannot be captured by logic or the rational. Or perhaps I’m being too much of a woman in saying that.
The poem reads like a magic spell, and in it you wonder if there is more than just angry sentiments toward the fairer sex. Perhaps in the subtext there is a hope that there is something more for the poet. I’ve given up my quest, he says. Yet he encourages you in yours. He doesn’t want you to prove to him that there is such a thing as an honest woman, because as you’re proving it she’ll let you down, but perhaps he doth protest too much.
Perhaps he’s hoping you’ll find that one thing can transform you. Much as the characters in the book were transformed by magic, by their love and friendship for one another. Perhaps he’s angry that the world has not turned out to be as romantic and magical as his youthful self hoped it would be.
But think about it differently. Perhaps a poem is not just dead words on a page; perhaps there is some magic there. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that poems were used for magic spell (bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) and that they were also made into songs. I know that the beauty of poem is something that moves a person and charges their imagination, but it not something that you can point to, in fact, in pulling the poem apart, in analyzing it, the beauty is lost like a butterfly torn apart is just shards of an insect. Sometimes the searching for something, that one something, is the act of letting go whether it’s preconceptions of what the world is, or what you believe your needs really are, or simply that you have a full handle on how everything works, that it’s as logical as you think it is. Sometimes the pieces fit together in strange ways like a poem about a mandrake root, devil’s feet, mermaids singing and the pursuit of true love.
Which song do you choose to sing? Do you want to live in your disappointment, or do you want to try to find something more? I encourage you to go on your quest even I’m certain at some point you will see mermaids singing – and that’s no lie.
by John Donne
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,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
If thou be’st borne 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,
Lives a woman true, and fair,
If thou findst 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,
False, ere I come, to two or three.