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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Donne Gone: There Ain't No Good 'True and Honest' Women


Song

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.


--John Donne (1572–1631)

In the poem "Song" by John Donne, the speaker uses an imperative tone, bidding the reader to accomplish several impossible things, and in the quest "find what wind serves to advance an honest mind." The reader should notice the capitalization of the first command to "GO." The speaker calls upon all people to seek that which is inconceivable or to seek the absurd in a search for honesty.

Social criticism and satire in the decree is evident. Horatian satire, named for the Roman satirist Horace (65–8 BCE), playfully criticizes social vice through gentle, mild, and light-hearted humor. It directs wit, exaggeration, and self-deprecating humor toward what it identifies as folly, rather than evil.





Let's Look at "Song" 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,
      And find
     What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind."


The tasks in the poem are allusions to common myths and impossible deeds. The quests in the poem are the following:

* To Catch a falling star.

Throughout the ages, the falling star represents an interaction between man and the divine. It represents something moving from a heavenly cosmic plain to the mortal, earthly world.

Shooting stars have and always will hold a special amazement to those viewing them. Stars are, in particular, frequently associated with the idea of the human soul. In the Teutonic mythology of central Europe, it was believed that every person was represented by a star which was attached to the ceiling of the sky by the threads of fate. And when Fate ended your story on earth, she would snip the thread attaching your star and it would fall, presaging your death.

In Romania, there is a belief that the stars are candles lit by the gods (and later the saints) in honor of each person’s birth and that the brighter the star the greater the person. The falling star represents the soul’s final journey to the afterlife as it is being blown out and across the sky by the divine candle keepers. In these and other cultures, falling stars and meteor showers were celebrated ~ they honored the ancestors who had come before them, and in particular the newly deceased who were joining the ranks of the highly venerated generations who had come before.

Even in the Middle Ages after the triumph of Christianity, the pagan equation between shooting stars and the movement of souls could not be snuffed out entirely. And so it was vilified; the shooting stars were cast as the souls of evil and impious men being cast out of heaven and down into the bowels of the earth.

* To Get with child a mandrake root.

In Genesis 30:14, Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and Leah finds mandrake in a field. Rachel,  Jacob's infertile second wife and Leah's sister, is desirous of the roots and barters with Leah for them.

The trade offered by Rachel is for Leah to spend that night in Jacob's bed in exchange for Leah's mandrake. Leah gives away the plant to her barren sister, but soon after this (Genesis 30:14-22), Leah, who had previously had four sons but had been infertile for a long while, became pregnant once more and in time gave birth to two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. Only years after this episode of her asking for the mandrakes did Rachel manage to get pregnant.

The predominant traditional Jewish view is that mandrake roots were an ancient folk remedy to help barren women conceive a child.

It was a common folklore in some countries that mandrake would only grow where the semen of a hanged had dripped onto the ground;  this would appear to be the reason for the methods employed by the alchemists who "projected human seed into animal earth."

Alchemists claimed that hanged men ejaculated after their necks were broken in the hanging and that the earth absorbed their final "strengths". In some versions, it is blood instead of semen. The root itself was used in love potions while its fruit was supposed to facilitate pregnancy.

But, according to the legend, when the root is dug up it screams and kills all who hear it.

Witches who "made love" to the Mandrake root were said to produce offspring which had no feelings or real love and had no soul.

In Germany, the plant is known as the Alraune: the novel (later adapted as a film) Alraune by Hanns Heinz Ewers is based on a soulless woman conceived from a hanged man's semen, the title referring to this myth of the Mandrake's origins.

The following is taken from The History and Practice of Magic by Paul Christian. 1963:
"Would you like to make a Mandragora, as powerful as the homunculus (little man in a bottle) so praised by Paracelsus?  Then find a root of the plant called bryony. Take it out of the ground on a Monday (the day of the moon), a little time after the vernal equinox. Cut off the ends of the root and bury it at night in some country churchyard in a dead man's grave. For thirty days water it with cow's milk in which three bats have been drowned. When the thirty-first day arrives, take out the root in the middle of the night and dry it in an oven heated with branches of verbena; then wrap it up in a piece of a dead man's winding-sheet and carry it with you everywhere."

*To Tell me where all past years are.

Khronos (or Chronus) was the Protogenos (Greek primeval divinity) god of time, a divinity who emerged self-formed at the beginning of creation in the Orphic cosmogonies (mythology ascribed to Orpheus, legendary Greek musician, poet, and prophet).

Khronos was the personification of time. He was imagined as an incorporeal (having no body or form) god, serpentine in form, with three heads--that of a man, a bull, and a lion. He and his consort, serpentine Ananke (Inevitability), circled the primal world-egg in their coils and split it apart to form the ordered universe of earth, sea and sky.

Ananke was seen as the most powerful dictator of all fate and circumstance which meant that mortals, as well as the Gods, respected her and paid homage. Considered as the mother of the Fates according to one version, she is the only one to have control over their decisions

Khronos and Ananke continued to circle the cosmos after creation-their passage driving the circling of heaven and the eternal passage of time.

The figure of Khronos was essentially a cosmological doubling of the Titan Kronos (also "Father Time"). The Orphics occasionally combined Khronos with their creator-god Phanes, and identified him with Ophion. His equivalent in the Phoenician cosmogony was probably Olam (Eternal Time), or Oulomos, as his name appears in Greek transcriptions.

Khronos was represented in Greco-Roman mosaic as Aion, "eternity" personified. He stands against the sky holding a wheel inscribed with the signs of the zodiac. Beneath his feet Gaia (Mother Earth) is usually seen reclining. The poet Nonnus describes Aion as an old man with long white hair and beard. Mosaics, however, present a youthful figure.

* Tell me who cleft the devil's foot.

In the ancient Greek mythology, the Devil is called Pan, a god who was a goat-man with horns, cloven hooves, and a pointed tail. The word "demon" is a Greek word used for Pan and his followers. A demon is a spirit who could take over a person's mind and body making them act ferociously, foam at the mouth, fall madly in love, and blurt out hidden truths and prophecies.

While mainstream Judaism contains no overt concept of a devil, Christianity and Islam have variously regarded the Devil as a rebellious fallen angel or demon that tempts humans to sin, if not commit evil deeds himself. Some Christians consider the Devil to have once been an angel who, along with one-third of the angelic host (the demons), rebelled against God and has consequently been condemned to the Lake of Fire, or Hell.

The Devil is described as hating all humanity, or more accurately creation, opposing God, spreading lies and wreaking havoc on the souls of mankind.

In these religions – particularly during periods of division or external threat – the Devil has assumed more of a dualistic status commonly associated with heretics, infidels, and other unbelievers. As such, the Devil is seen as an allegory that represents a crisis of faith, individualism, free will, wisdom, and enlightenment.

Satan is often identified as the serpent who convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit; thus, Satan has often been depicted as a serpent. Other descriptions say the Devil has the horns of a goat and a ram, goat's fur and ears, nose and canines of a pig -- a typical depiction of the Devil in Christian art. The goat, ram and pig are consistently associated with the Devil. 

* To hear the mermaids singing.

"I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music."

- William Shakespeare

A mermaid is a legendary aquatic creature with the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish. Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including the Near East, Europe, Africa and Asia.

The first stories appeared in ancient Assyria, in which the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. Mermaids are sometimes associated with perilous events such as floods, storms, shipwrecks and drownings. In other folk traditions (or sometimes within the same tradition), they can be benevolent or beneficent, bestowing boons or falling in love with humans.

The word mermaid is a compound of the Old English mere (sea), and maid (a girl or young woman). The equivalent term in Old English was merewif. They are conventionally depicted as beautiful with long flowing hair.

As cited above, they are sometimes equated with the sirens of Greek mythology (especially the Odyssey), half-bird femme fatales whose enchanting voices would lure soon-to-be-shipwrecked sailors to nearby rocks, sandbars or shoals

* To keep off envy's stinging.

Don Quixote: "O envy! envy! thou gnawing worm of virtue, and spring of infinite mischiefs! there is no other vice, my Sancho, but pleads some pleasure in its excuse; but envy is always attended by disgust, rancour, and distracting rage." 

(Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II. Chapter 8).

Zelos was the spirit (daimon) of eager rivalry, emulation, envy, jealousy and zeal. He and his siblings, Nike (Victory), Bia (Force) and Kratos (Strength), were the winged enforcers of Zeus who stood in attendance of his throne.

Zelos may have been identified with Agon, spirit of contest, worshipped at Olympia. He was also sometimes equated with Phthonos, the spirit of romantic jealousy, and was closely connected with the good Eris, strife as the driving force of competition.

Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Catholic Church. In the Book of Genesis envy is said to be the motivation behind Cain murdering his brother, Abel, as Cain envied Abel because God favored Abel's sacrifice over Cain's.

Envy is a sin of flesh. Envy (evil eye) is among the things that come from the heart, defiling a person.The whole body is full of darkness when the eye, the lamp of body, is bad.,He who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished, said Solomon.Envy ruins the body health because it makes the bone rot and excludes us from inheriting the kingdom of God.Sometimes, as a punishment, God leaves some people in their sins, falling prey to envy and other heavy sins.

"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." 


The speaker calls upon those “born to strange sights" or those who can see “invisible things" to go on a thorough, lifelong quest for "ten thousand days and nights" to find answers. But, even for those with this favorable disposition to seeing the rare and elusive, the true believers of the strangest metaphysics of space and time, the speaker confidently announces that they will, at the end of their journeys, announce: "No where lives a woman true and fair."

The reader is expected to understand the absurdity of this statement. Donne uses biting irony for comical effect, as he employs sarcasm as a way to expose and humiliate women. As a point of understanding, the word sarcasm is derived from the Greek sarkasmos, which is taken from the word σαρκάζειν meaning "to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer."

Donne is known for his playfulness with metaphysical conceits and female sexuality. The grouping together of the words true and fair suggests that one could find a true woman, the proviso being that she is unattractive (and so privy to fewer opportunities for licentiousness). In other words, any woman would be “untrue” if she could; the natural state of woman is wantonness.

(Michelle White,  "Analysis of  'Song – Go and Catch a Falling Star' by John Donne," http://suite101.com/article/analysis-of-song--go-and-catch-a-falling-star-by-john-donne-a320886, December 14 2010)


The reader should understand that comparing the impossibilities of life, and announcing that the rarest and greatest is a woman who is  "virtuous, true and fair" is seen as extremely paradoxical as it contrasts with the Petrachen conventions at the time, placing women as the height of all greatness and placed on pedestals. Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) was an Italian scholar and poet. He is often known as the "Father of Humanism."

In the 16th century, Pietro Bembo created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch's works, as well as those of Giovanni Boccaccio, and to a lesser extent, Dante Alighieri. Petrarch would be later endorsed as a model for Italian style by the Accademia della Crusca. Petrarch's sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe during the Renaissance and became a model for lyrical poetry. 

"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."


At last, Donne even provides for the unlikely event of a reader finding a true woman, and so having completed a “sweet” pilgrimage -- as opposed to the demonic, frightful journey described in the first stanza.

Donne uses unmitigated cynicism as his speaker says that if a person were to find such a virtuous woman and corresponded with him to relay the news, the speaker would still "not go" as far as "the next door" to greet the "true lady" because by the time the speaker got the letter, she would be a "false" lover and unfaithful by being amorous with "two or three" others.

Donne connects with the motif of the myth by saying that a virtuous woman is, in itself, a myth. The last line of the poem is a poignant statement that reinforces the belief that love does not last.

Could the poem be making a point about the difference in truth in what we hold as romantically adventurous and what we experience? This view of love is seeming to say, "Tell me about finding the glory of innocence and true love, but let me give you some real advice before you do."

And, doesn't "Song" challenge the notion of it being better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? 

"'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."

--Alfred Lord Tennyson,  In Memoriam, (1850)

Donne views the losing part of loving as inevitable and figures that since this is obvious from the outset, the trip is not worth it. And this is not a "trip" to a place but to a destination of a state of "advancing an honest mind."

Michelle White asserts two possible conclusions in her analysis of "Song":

1. "Donne’s reasoning in this poem is black and white: either he’s right to believe ill of all women, or else all the accepted ideas about the Devil, and shrieking plants, and murderous mermaids, are incorrect.

"In driving this point home, he reminds the addressee that “true” is a time-sensitive adjective – that a woman who was true for a particular time is likely, even guaranteed to be false should some time pass. Again a woman’s faithfulness is ascribed to a lack of opportunity to act otherwise, since Donne is postulating that the woman in question has been false since the addressee left her (i.e., he is no longer there to keep an eye on her)."

OR

2. "Still, John Donne may be making a radical point underneath it all. He certainly allows women agency, as well as the strong conviction to do as they see fit, in insisting on their tendency to change their minds. And if a faithful woman is so satanic, unheard-of, unnatural, could an inconstant one (even if she is operating against Christian morals) then be the ideal? Donne does not go so far as to openly proclaim this, but his argument is still gracious enough to leave this loophole."

 (Michelle White,  "Analysis of  'Song – Go and Catch a Falling Star' by John Donne," http://suite101.com/article/analysis-of-song--go-and-catch-a-falling-star-by-john-donne-a320886, December 14 2010)


 John Donne
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