Poetry has long featured mythical and magical creatures. From childhood children are taught nursery rhymes that feature fantastical beasts, witches, fairies, and giants. Yet as people age, their ability to believe in or hold dear those fantastical persons gives way to realism, cynicism, or even a kind of malice. John Donne’s poem “Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star” and Margaret Atwood’s poem “Siren Song” both contain magical and fantastical elements which are darkened by more adult emotions and feelings.
Donne’s poem begins with a litany of magical and impossible events, including the famous “go and catch a falling star” (Donne), which is followed by the suggestion that one impregnate a mandrake root, where days go, who clove the devil’s feet, and hearing mermaids sing, as well as several other difficult tasks. The narrator addresses his audience and asks them that if they are able to see strange and wondrous sights to go on a trip of “ten thousand days and nights, / Till age snow white hairs on thee” and then return and tell the narrator “All strange wonders that befell thee” (Donne). But the thing that the narrator tells the audience they will not find, “no where,” no matter how far and long they ride, is a woman “true, and fair” (Donne). This reveals the point of Donne’s poem: the idea that “female virtue and honesty is rare, even impossible” (“Song”). Donne has added ‘female virtue’ to his list of magical and mythical things, but he has deprived it of the strong concrete images that the other magical things on the list have been given. One can envision a falling star; one can imagine the devil’s cloven hooves. But how might one embody female virtue? Furthermore, the tone of the poem clearly demonstrates Donne’s attitude towards women; the tone of the poem has been described as being a combination of “wry exaggeration with dark pessimism” (“Song”) as well as being one of Donne’s “cynical cavalier songs” (al-Khamisi). In short, Donne combines exaggeration – the mythical elements – with darker emotions, namely cynicism.
Margaret Atwood’s poem “Siren Song” also features a mythical creature: one of the sirens of mythology, a magical woman whose song will lead men to their deaths and whose name means “fatal seductress” (Ostriker 78). Her song is so powerful that it “forces men / to leap overboard in squadrons / even though they see the beached skulls” (Atwood). The siren who speaks in the poem speaks of herself and her partners as being feathered, “looking picturesque and mythical” (Atwood). But the one who speaks in the poem sets herself apart from her peers, confessing that they are “two feathery maniacs” and she doesn’t “enjoy singing this trio, fatal and valuable” and wants out of her “bird suit” (Atwood). But the speaker reveals her true nature at the end of the poem: she has been singing her siren song the whole time, though it is a “boring song / but it works every time” (Atwood). She has led another victim to his death. Her allure turns against her listener; even the listener of the poem has been taken in. Much like Donne, Atwood offers concrete images – skulls, feathers, an island – of the magical things but does not provide the victim with any such consideration (much like Donne’s treatment of female virtue). The tone of the poem seems to reduce the magic of the siren by having the siren speak like a normal person. As Mallinson notes, this “demonstrates how unlike the mythmaker’s fantasy any plausible reality of sirens is.” In other words, Atwood’s presentation of the mythical creature takes some of the magic out of it, injecting the scene with realism. The image of the beautiful seductress is dampened by the siren’s matter-of-fact tone which does not manage to hide her vicious and malicious nature (Ostriker). Reality sets in.
These two poems are linked in another way as well, but this time in contrast. Whereas Donne simply and passively presents fantastical elements, Atwood gives voice and personality to the element she uses; it is an active and dynamic presence in the poem, working on the reader the whole time. Furthermore, Donne’s poem is clearly critical of women without trying to understand them or why they may behave as they do. Atwood’s poem presents women’s behavior as a result of how men treat them. Trapped by men’s limited notions of what women should be and seemingly unable to change it, women’s power becomes dark, and their “power to do evil is a direct function of her powerlessness to do anything else” (Ostriker 78). Donne’s tone and attitude towards women are dismissive; Atwood’s poem teaches men what happens when you treat women that way. Donne’s poem gives no concrete consideration to women; Atwood’s poem does, in the shape of the beached skulls. These symbolize men who have failed to appreciate the power of women and, as such, are dismissed and no longer worthy of consideration. Yet, strangely, the skulls give them some consideration: they were present at one time.
Both Donne and Atwood employ mythical and magical elements in order to make communicate their respective themes. They both also inject their poems with darker emotions which take some of the fantasy away from those same elements; their poems contain cynicism, pessimism, and realism. Yet, Atwood uses her mythical element the siren proactively to make her point, while Donne uses his passively. Donne begins a conversation about women with his poem which Atwood finishes with hers, refuting Donne and defending women. Together they form a cynical and magical dialogue despite the many years which separate them.