Go and Catch a Falling Star
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.
I was talking with a nice Korean young man (born 1988) who is an English Literature major at a university in Seoul. We were scribbling on the back side of the paper; on the front was this poem.
I read it again and a third time. Slowly an idea took shape in my mind: Adventure. Could it be? -- a poem praising the adventurous spirit, both physical and mental, eternal curiosity, relentless seeking after new knowledge; maybe on the fantastical side, but approving. Life is the eternal pursuit of knowledge and experience, and also full of fool's errands, and maybe, ultimately, every single thing is a fool's errand, but that's okay. Something like this took shape in my mind. Poetry is hard. I said simply in English, "I think this poem means 'Adventure is good.'" He flatly replied: "No." A little condescendingly, he explained the real meaning:
The paper was a handout he'd made for his class. He'd had to explain the poem, longform lecture style.
At home later, I find that this poem actually has three stanzas (here). Here is the rest:
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,
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,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
It's hard to sift through the Shakespearean phrasings and obsolete grammar forms, but the meaning is clear, I think, if we recognize the phrase "be true" as meaning "loyal in romance" which was still used in old songs from the 1960s I have heard.
Why was only the first stanza on his handout? Did he present that stanza alone and talk all about the poem being about women (something he will have read in a commentary on the poem in Korean, I expect)? Now that would be disorienting. (I know that a lot of language classes in East Asia operate under the watchful eye of the Emperor's New Clothes Principle, though -- Lots of confusion while everyone pretends they know what's going on; many pass courses and tests by memorizing and not true working competence.)