The elusive “falling star” that is sought after in John Donne’s “Go And Catch A Falling Star” signifies woman, especially women of the virtuous and fair kind. Traditionally, the falling star is an emblem of good omen. Man’s relentless pursuit of the other sex since times immemorial has been made into a much more derisive, sinister, and cautionary reminder to the young boy about to embark on the same adventurous conquest that the poet himself, along with the race of men have undertaken.
The falling star, though not yet fallen already on to the ground indicates the presence of some hope for the male pursuer; but, the bitter cynicism and malevolence the poem evinces originate in the poet’s own harsh experiences in courting women, having come to realize the sheer impossibility of finding the perfect woman. Women, had been for centuries regarded as vile creatures, unfaithful and capable of causing much havoc both in the realms of the hearth as well as in the extrinsic realm, howsoever little agency she could exercise in the world. Reminding the young man of the wiles and woes of the “dangerous sex”, and of their unsympathetic ways, the narrator seems to be ingratiating the aspiring male lover, yet not cognizant of the deviousness of the female psyche, into a paternal (if not patriarchal) communarium of sorts.
The first stanza introduces a plethora of near-implausible tasks, and by employing a series of elaborate conceits, the narrator likens the woman, who is the embodiment of virtuousness, fairness and truth, as being unattainable in reality, or being non-existent. The misogynistic condemnation in this poem stands in stark contrast to the Petrarchan idealization of the feminine sex in his sonnets, culminating almost in a space of impossible desire. The male narrator of the poem does not take any misplaced delight in pursuing the woman, whose attraction is only contained insofar as that paradox is sustained. Women here are fleshed out, with no hesitation or uncertainty, as real creatures, lecherous, exploitative of their male spouses or partners.
The mandrake plant was deemed as sprouting where the semen of a hung man would fall, and would engender a soulless woman, according to legend. Moreover, it emitted a shriek when it was derooted, and the resultant noise was purported to kill all those who would hear it. The uncanny conjunction of “child” and “mandrake root” emphasizes the deception of the root, and the implausibility of obtaining a child from it, although, supposedly it resembles human flesh and was used in promoting conception. The fatalism of the root resembles that of the woman.
The list of implausible accomplishments that he evokes with glib irony also includes recuperating all the bygone years of the endeared past and knowing who had cleaved the devil’s hoof. The latter is especially significant as it helps him further his argument about the connivance of women by instituting the metaphor of mermaids (whose music the poet wants to hear), mythical creatures who are women from their waists upwards, but which have powers to enchant and lure unsuspecting men to the depths of the waters, where they would meet their deaths. Some critics have opined that the mermaids’ enchanting song is posited to remind us of the similar tranquil effects of mother’s lullabies that al boys grow up hearing, and that there might be an undercurrent of abhorrence towards the poet’s own mother-figure, in simultaneity with the condemnation directed at all women. The mandrake root furthermore resembles the devil’s hoof with its three-pronged appearance and serves only to accentuate the frustrations of an “honest”, but dejected (though the question of his honesty as a lover has not been put up to examination in the poem) admirer, who in fact is spurred onto envying the woman’s other admirers, and admits he cannot exempt himself from this vicious cycle of jealousy, lust and impenetrable tragedy for which he holds the dishonest, deceptive woman guilty. Donne also implies that honesty is never awarded because there is no “wind” that has prospered the honest mind.
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