This song was posthumously published in 1633 in the volume entitled ‘Songs and Sonnets’. It was written by Donne in his youth when he saw a good deal of London life. The subject of woman’s inconstancy was a stock subject but Donne enlivened it with his personal experience. His gay life in London and his association with different women in London only confirmed his view about woman’s faithlessness.In this poem, the poet, through a series of images, shows the impossibility of discovering a true and faithful woman. While the poets following the Petrarchan tradition made of woman a heroine and a goddess, worthy of love and admiration, the metaphysical poets poked fun at woman’s fashions, weakness and faithlessness. Shakespeare’s maxim—”Frailty thy name is woman” —was quite popular in the age of Donne. The fickleness of woman could be more easily experienced than described. The cynical attitude to the fair sex in the early poems of Donne, is in contrast with the rational attitude to love and sex to be found in his later poems.
DEVELOPMENT OF THOUGHT
According to Donne, it is impossible to fins; a loyal and chaste woman. Woman’s inconstancy proved a popular subject with the Elizabethan and the Metaphysical poets. The poet, through irony and exaggeration suggests the impossibility of the undertaking to discover a true and fair woman. Fair women will have lovers and therefore it is not possible for them to be faithful to any of them. (Faithfulness on the part of an ugly and uninviting woman can be a possibility because she will not be able to attract lovers). The poet mentions a number of impossible tasks—catching a falling star or meteor, begetting a child on a mandrake root, memory of past years, finding the name of the person who clove the Devil’s foot, listening to the music of the fabulous mermaids, changing human nature so as to make it indifferent to envy and jealousy or finding out the climate which would promote man’s honesty. Just as it is impossible to do these jobs, in the same way it is impossible to find a faithful woman. Even if a man were to travel throughout the world for ten thousand days and nights—this would cover more than twenty-seven years—till his hair grew grey, he would not come across a faithful woman. He might have seen many wonderful scenes and sights, but he would not have seen the most wonderful sight of all—that of a true and fair woman.
A real pilgrimage
The poet is very keen on discovering a true and fair woman if there be any such in the world. If any one tells the poet that there is such a woman, he would go on a pilgrimage to see her. She would really deserve his admiration and worship. The poet, however, feels that the journey will be futile, for even such woman’s faithfulness will be temporary. By the time one writes a letter to her, she would have enjoyed with two or three lovers. Hence the poet despairs about seeing any constant woman.
Though technically the poem is a ‘song’ which should have sweetness, lilt and smoothness, it has a lot of argument. The colloquial form of the poem—the speaking voice in a real situation—deserves attention. The rhythm is similar to that of speech rhythm which changes according to the needs of the argument. ‘The breaking of the tetrameter form in lines seven and eight (with two syllables each) is a dramatic device that projects tension rather than irregularity, and indicates the stress that one would use in a dramatic reading. “The poet constantly indulges in dislocating the accepted rhythms, dropping his lines most unexpectedly (though always giving us pleasant surprises) but the final impression is not one of confession but of an inner logic of the poet’s experience”. The use of hyperbole is understandable: “Ten thousand days and nights till age snow white hairs on thee”. The witty ironic reversal in the last stanza is a device commonly used by Donne. All his journey and trouble in finding a true and fair woman would result in ‘love’s labour lost’. The poet draws images from a wide field of knowledge—mythology, Christianity and legendary love. He proves his thesis with a masculine gusto and youthful vivacity.