Margaret Atwood 1974
Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song” is part of the poet’s 1974 collection, You Are Happy, and is included in a section titled “Songs of the Transformed.” In Greek mythology, the Sirens were half-bird (or half-fish), half-woman creatures who inhabited an island, luring mariners to their doom by means of their beautiful, irresistible song. The Sirens are most often associated with a Tate in Homer’s The Odyssey, where the hero Odysseus is able to resist them, because he has his men tie him to the ship’s mast and plug their own ears so that they cannot hear the song. In “Siren Song,” Atwood adapts this myth by creating a poem indicative of one of the Siren’s perspective, recounted in the first-person voice.
Margaret Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, the second of three children in a two-parent household. Most of her early years were spent in the wilderness of northern Quebec, where her father pursued entomological research. In 1946, the family moved to Toronto, but during the summer, the parents continued taking their children to the woods. The experience prepared Atwood for her usual teenage employment at summer camps and provided the background for one of her more celebrated novels, Surfacing (1972), and also for much of the material
in her poetry. Aside from what she humorously refers to as her “dark period” between the ages of eight and sixteen (when she had ambitions to paint or design clothes), Atwood has focused on writing, beginning her career as a poet, short story writer, cartoonist, and reviewer in her high school paper, and then later contributing to the ActaVictoriana and The Strand at Victoria College, University of Toronto. During her undergraduate years at Victoria College, Atwood met well-known critic Northrop Frye. In 1962, she took her A.M. at Radcliffe College and then attended Harvard University from 1962 to 1963. After returning to Toronto in 1963, Atwood took a job in a marketing research firm, which furnished her with material for part of her novel The Edible Woman (1969). Atwood then moved to Vancouver in 1964 and taught English at the University of British Columbia for one year. From 1965 to 1967, Atwood was back at Harvard, but she did not complete her Ph.D. by the time she left. In 1974, at the time of the publication of “Siren Song” in the volume You Are Happy, Atwood was living in Alliston, Ontario, located near Toronto. Some of the places Atwood has taught since leaving Harvard are Sir George Williams University, Montreal; the University of Alberta, Edmonton; York University, Toronto; The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; New York University in New York City; and Macquarie University in Australia. Among Atwood’s numerous awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction, Humanist of the Year, Canadian Authors’ Association Novel of the Year for The Robber Bride (1993), and the Norwegian Order of Literary Merit. In addition, Atwood has many honorary degrees, the most prestigious from Oxford University. Atwood has penned over forty books of poetry, fiction, and criticism, and she has written for radio, television, and film.
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Although the poem’s title may initially be confusing (it could refer to the sound of an ambulance siren, for instance), by the end of line 3, we have enough information to realize that the poem is about creatures from Greek mythology who were part woman and part bird. Known for their irresistible singing, the Sirens lured and killed mariners who passed by their island. Most accounts provide
- A recording titled The Poetry and Voice of Margaret Atwood was released by Caedmon in 1977.
- An audiocassette of Jan Castro’s interview with Margaret Atwood is available from the American Prose Library.
for three Sirens—named Parthenope, Ligea, and Leucosia—and the most famous story involving them is found in The Odyssey. In these first three lines of “Siren Song,” the speaker declares that everyone would like to have the power of irresistibility that the Sirens possess via their song.
These stanzas continue the myth of the Sirens by giving more details about their “irresistible” song. So powerful was the lure of the melody that sailors, even though they saw “the beached skulls” of previous human victims, willingly leaped overboard to meet their fate. The phrase “others can’t remember” may refer to Odysseus, who resisted the Sirens by having his crew tie him to his ship’s mast, or the Argonauts, who were protected from the Sirens by Orpheus.
In this stanza, we discover that the poem’s narrator is actually one of the Sirens. She explains that she is unhappy and asks for help to escape her situation—to get out of her “bird suit.” For this, she is willing to betray the other Sirens by revealing the secret of the song and, thus, rendering them powerless.
In these two stanzas, the narrator expounds upon the reasons for her unhappiness. While outsiders may view her as “picturesque and mythical,” this Siren claims to be miserable; she doesn’t like to sing and she characterizes her two cohorts as “feathery maniacs.” By sharing her feelings of unhappiness with the reader and distancing herself from the other Sirens, the narrator presents herself as a sympathetic figure rather than as an uncaring and deadly creature.
The Siren continues to address the reader personally, hinting that she seeks friendship and insisting that her song is not one of enticement but is, instead, a cry for help. These six lines can simultaneously be interpreted in two ways. If one believes that the Siren is unhappy and wants to escape, he or she would view the Siren’s willingness to share her secret as a token of appreciation for helping her. A more cautious or cynical observer would judge the Siren as playing on the reader’s sympathies and question why he or she needs to “come closer” to hear the secret.
The poem’s last three lines, beginning with the word “Alas,” reveal the true nature of the Siren: she is cunning and without conscience. She casually notes that although her song is “boring,” it “works every time.” Indeed, she seems to lament the fact that her task is so easy, due to the stupidity of her victims.
Love and Passion
The Sirens are objects of passionate, uncontrollable desire, or “love objects.” Traditionally, their appeal has been credited to their song, but is it the beautiful sound of their voices or the actual message that is irresistible? In Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey (1963), the lyrics of the Siren’s song appeal to the rowers on three levels: first, the Sirens are irresistible (“No lonely seafarer / holds clear of entering / Our green mirror”); second, they can impart wisdom (“As from our song of Troy / Graybeard and rower-boy / Goeth more learn’d / All feats on that great field / In the long warfare, / Dark days the bright gods willed, / Wounds you bore there, / Argos’ old soldiery / On Troy beach teeming, / Charmed out of time we see”); and third, the Sirens see all (“No life on earth can be / Hid from our dreaming”). In Homer, then, the Sirens appeal both by the sonority of their voice and the promise of their message. But Atwood has refashioned the myth of a boasting, all-powerful Siren into a myth of a cunning, all-powerful Siren, and she has left unmentioned the allure of the voice altogether. Atwood’s Siren becomes an object of
Topics for Further Study
- Write a paper gathering as much information as you can on the Sirens (see Plato, Homer, Ovid, etc.).
- Discuss why alarms on police cars and ambulances are called “sirens.” Do research on the topic.
- Research other groups of females in Greek mythology—for example, the Furies, the Fates, and the Muses.
- Research mythical beings that are part bird (griffin) and try to find similarities among them.
love and passion not by promising power, but by feigning helplessness.
Although Atwood’s Siren gains her irresistibility through feigning helplessness, she ultimately lures men by making them believe they are unique. This is done through the Siren’s twofold claim that she has a secret (that only he can hear) and that she is unhappy (but he can make her happy). He is made to feel special by being convinced he is superior to all other men because of his ability to be and to give the Siren what she says she needs. What is irresistible is that the Siren tells the man exactly what he wants to hear. In this way, the man is responsible for his own fate; he decided the believe what he heard rather than what he saw (the bones of previous victims).
Despite its subject matter, “Siren Song” possesses wink-and-nod humor, almost eliciting the reader at the end of the poem to say, “Ain’t that the truth.” “Siren Song” could be a conversation heard at a bar, woman to woman or woman to man, or a bit of sexual strategy from a woman who knows—who has experienced the privileged position of being irresistible. Because Atwood applies humor and a conversational tone to the rather scholastic subject of Greek myth, she domesticates and contemporizes it, bringing cultivated allusion down to earth and up to date. This is poetry and myth, but without the usual high seriousness.
“Siren Song” is written in free verse, so it displays no formal pattern of rhyme and is without regular meter. This allows the poet to employ a conversational tone. The most pronounced traits of Atwood’s poem are its stanzas and enjambments. “Siren Song” consists of nine tercets, or stanzas of three lines (perhaps as a reference to the three Sirens). Atwood uses enjambment to control the pace of the poem. For instance, in stanza seven, enjambment happens from its last words “This song” (line 21) to the next stanza’s “is a cry for help.” The technique speeds the reader as he or she approaches the end, much like a final swelling of a musical composition.
On July 1, 1960, the Canadian House of Commons began debate on a bill titled “Act for the Recognition and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” A little more than one month later, the House of Commons unanimously approved the legislation. The Canadian “bill of rights” guaranteed Canadians fundamental freedoms regardless of race, national origin, color, religion, or sex. Numbered among these freedoms were the rights to individual life, liberty, and security; the enjoyment of property; equality before the law; protection by the law; and freedoms of religion, assembly, association, and the press. Such rights and freedoms were far from unique to Canada and were commonly associated with the richest industrialized democracies. What made the Canadian bill of rights an important milestone in the history of human rights was its place in the evolution of legal protection for women and minorities. But in 1974, the Canadian Supreme Court seemed to backtrack on the bill: the case centered on Native rights but also ventured into the area of women’s rights. Under contention was the following problem: a Native-Canadian woman who married a white man would lose her status as a Native, but a Native-Canadian man marrying a white woman retained
Compare & Contrast
- 1974: Crack cocaine makes its first documented appearance in California.
July, 1999: The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that cocaine is more deadly on hot days. “In the review of medical examiner cases in New York, NY, between 1990 and 1995, Marzuk and colleagues determined that the mean daily number of fatal cocaine overdoes rose 33 percent when the temperature reached 88 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.”
- 1974: U.S. President Richard Nixon resigns in humiliation over the Watergate scandal, and Gerald Ford becomes thirty-eighth president.
1999: The Office of Independent Council that began with the appointment of Leon Jaworski investigating Richard Nixon ends with the most controversial prosecutor of them all, Kenneth Starr, whose prosecution of Bill Clinton for various examples of misconduct led to Clinton’s impeachment, but not the end of his term in office.
- 1974: On November 12, South Africa is expelled from the United Nations.
1999: South Africa holds its first election after the first post-apartheid president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, resigns. Economist Thabo Mbeki, the candidate for Mandela’s African National Congress, becomes the country’s new president.
- 1974: British physicist Stephen Hawking proposed that black holes, apparently formed by the gravitational collapse of stars, could emit radiation, called Hawking radiation.
1999: The field of black holes, formerly dominated by heavyweights packing the gravitational punch of a billion Suns and lightweights just a few times heavier than our Sun, gains a new contender: a just-discovered mysterious class of “middleweight” black holes, weighing in at 100 to 10,000 Suns. Astronomers at NASA and Carnegie Mellon University independently find evidence for the new type of black hole in spiral-shaped galaxies throughout the universe. The newfound black holes, formed by an unknown process, are 100 to 10,000 times as massive as the Sun, yet each occupies less space than our Moon.
his legal status as a Native (and his wife was also legally considered a Native). The Court ruled that this inequality was not in violation of the 1960 Canadian bill of rights. Though the viability of the bill of rights suffered with this decision, the ruling was offset by the positive contribution that the bill of rights played in prompting the provinces to pass their own (though more limited) human rights legislation. The bill of rights also kept attention fixed on the lack of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights in Canada and thus contributed to public pressure for the passage of the more extensive protections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).
While relations of women and minorities gradually improved under the treatment of Canada’s bill of rights, other areas of the Canadian body politic began to fester. Political violence and upheavals have been very rare in Canadian history, and, as a result, many Canadians have proudly referred to their country as “the peaceable kingdom.” However, Canada does possess its divisive tensions generated by regionalism, and cultural and ethnic conflicts. The nation’s tradition of liberty and tranquility in the face of regional and cultural discord was severely tested in October of 1970. Contributing factors to the crisis were a rebellious trend associated with this historical period (the 1960s, especially in Canada’s influential neighbor, the United States) and the long-standing grievances of Canada’s French-speaking community. Francophones, about 25 percent of Canada’s population and largely concentrated in the province of Quebec, had always waged a struggle against assimilation into the dominant Anglophone culture and had even fashioned a series of cultural agreements with France. On the morning of October 5, 1970, the crisis began when the Quebec Liberation Front moved beyond its relatively tame tactics and kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross from his Montreal residence. The kidnappers demanded the release of twenty-three political prisoners and their safe passage. This and other events led to the federal government’s banning of the Quebec Liberation Front and the government’s first invocation, in peacetime, of emergency powers under the War Measures Act. The emergency measures, imposed on October 16, 1970, were not lifted until April 30, 1971. Although administrative reforms, including the establishment of French as Quebec’s official language in 1974, helped meet the demands of radical cultural nationalism, separatism continued to be a divisive force in Canadian politics.
Quebec again became the center of attention when, in 1971, Hydro-Quebec began plans for the world’s largest hydroelectric complex, with more than 200 dams and dikes, twenty-three power stations, and diversion of nineteen rivers. Since its inception in 1971, the James Bay Project has been under the scrutiny of the international community and of the Cree and Inuit tribes living in the area. Originally conceived as an avenue for Quebecois independence and self-sufficiency, the project became the center of controversy and still embodies the ongoing friction between the province of Quebec and the federal government of Canada. On the evening of April 30, 1971, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa unveiled plans created by Hydro-Quebec, the state-run electric company, for a hydroelectric project that would create tens of thousands of jobs, create a new trade base for Quebec in surplus power for export, and entice investment in extractive industries. Two months later, the feasibility study being conducted by Hydro-Quebec had not even been completed when the construction of roads into the James Bay Area began. Bourassa saw this project not only as a way of creating much needed jobs, but also as a means of increasing the economic autonomy of Quebec. Yet flooding the James Bay area to create artificial lakes altered an already fragile ecosystem, including that of the Beluga whale, several migratory birds, and fresh water seals, and killed animals in uncountable numbers. Since the 1970s, the Cree and environmental groups against Hydro-Quebec have initiated lawsuits. In addition, several contracts between U.S. utility companies and Hydro-Quebec have fallen through. The site continues to be developed and remains a site of major controversy as it aggravates already existent ethnic, environmental, and political tensions.
Helen Vendler reviewed You Are Happy in the New York Times and what she has to say about the book as a whole also applies to “Siren Song”: “Margaret Atwood continues to construct her guided missiles which have a deadly force of their own, poems so neat and silent that they move in space like an invisible invasion, descend, pierce the mind and leave a wound.” As to “Siren Song,” Vendler singles it out for special mention as illustrative of Atwood’s “comic” sense” and the “tight-lipped truth behind it.” In an article for Modern Poetry Studies, Maureen Dilliott writes that “Siren Song” “provides a succinct delineation of the danger of words. The words of the song are a lie, abut a lie always believed and always fatal to the believers.... The desire of man to believe he is unique, his insistent clinging to a sense of individuality is what allows lies to deceive him and to destroy him. The individualist is more vulnerable to the destructive effects of language, more liable to deceive himself and less able to use and respond to language in a way that will eliminate the barriers between people.”
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer considers the power of art, using the Siren’s song as an example.
Margaret Atwood is a poet who, quite often, playfully reverses the roles in a situation to make a point. In “This Is a Photograph of Me,” a persona speaks about a photograph of a house and a lake only to inform the reader, at the end of the poem, that “I am in the photograph,” because the voice has drowned and is “in the lake.” Likewise, Atwood is a poet of the unexpected. She would argue that poetry is the art of the unexpected and then point out which poets are best at that particular strategy in a poem. As playful as Atwood is with situations in her poems, she draws quite heavily on a plethora of classical literary sources: what is unique is the way she reinvents her material.
In the case of “Siren Song,” from her 1974 collection, You Are Happy, Atwood has borrowed the story from Homer’s The Odyssey but has given the events of Odysseus passing the rocky shores of the Sirens a reversal, or “twist.” In The Odyssey, Book VII, Odysseus asks his men to tether him to the mast of his ship so that he can hear the song of the Sirens, three mythical sisters who sit upon the rocks and lure mariners to their doom through the beauty of their song. In the Homeric version, Odysseus has his men plug their ears so that they cannot hear the song that is said to drive men mad with its pity, its beauty, and its charm. In despair at their inability to lure Odysseus to his fate on their shore, the three Sirens, Leucosia, Ligeia and Parthenope (who were part bird and part women), threw themselves in the sea. In other mythological references to the three coastal songstresses, one story has them losing a singing match to the Muses, the patron inspirational forces behind the arts.
In Atwood’s hands, the Sirens are reduced to a single, female entity. From the outset, she outlines her self-pity, her helplessness, and her difficult predicament, while all the while effecting a persona that would put Keats’s La Belle Dame to shame. Atwood’s Siren realizes the power of her art: “This is the one song everyone / would like to learn: the song / that is irresistible: / the song that forces men / to leap overboard in squadrons / even though they see the beached skulls / the song nobody knows / because anyone who has heard it / is dead, and the others can’t remember.” The suggestion is that both the making of poetic art (here equated with the song of the Sirens) and the apprehension, or full understanding, of it is something that drives people to madness.
Much has been made by critics of the “mad song” quality of the Sirens’ song, and it has become almost a symbol for the power of art to transform the perceptions of an individual for the worse. In the case of the Odysseus story from the Homeric epic, the song of the Sirens is a bit like eating fugu: it is a great temptation that, if managed properly, has its rewards, but if not properly controlled, it can lead to disaster. As an artistic experience, it ranks with the highest possible perceptions, the outer limits of what E. H. Gombrich called “the beholder’s share.” It is a trompe I’oeil, a type of art that masks another, far more sinister meaning—a point Atwood acknowledges in the final three stanzas of her poem. In those stanzas, the Siren begs the reader to “Come closer” and explains that “This song / is a cry for help: Help me!” Suddenly the reader is trapped in the intimacy of the situation, a place from which he cannot extricate himself. The Siren declares, “Only you, only you can” (like the
What Do I Read Next?
- In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), by Erving Goffman, the author’s major thesis is that each man in everyday social intercourse presents himself and his activities to others, attempts to guide and control the impressions they form of him, and employs certain techniques in order to sustain his performance—all in the manner of an actor presenting a character on a stage.
- The Greek Myths (1955) by Robert Graves is one of the best books on the subject. For instance, Graves furnishes the names of not just three Sirens but eleven, and he provides other hard-to-find information.
- Women and Nature by Susan Griffin (1978) is a rather poetic work describing how women have been configured as nature in literature throughout the ages. While the table of contents is fairly extensive, the book lacks an index.
- The Metamorphoses of Ovid is one of the most important sources for information on Greek myth. Ovid furnishes, for example, a possible explanation of how the Sirens got their claws and feathers.
lyrics from a 1950s pop song that insisted, “Only you can make this world seem bright”). The reader is almost flattered to hear “you are unique,” the faint and damning praise from the Siren, who only practices her “boring song” because “it works every time.”
Atwood has arranged the poem to snare the reader. One is meant to feel pity for the bird-like woman who is “squatting on this island / looking picturesque and mythical // with these two feathery maniacs” (her sister Sirens). The reader is lured by natural curiosity when the Siren says, “I will tell the secret to you, / to you, only to you.” The suggestion here is that intimacy is a kind of a trap, and that relationships based solely on verbal promises or pretty songs heard from afar are not to be trusted.
“... [B]eneath the promises, the lies, and fatal deceptions, the Siren’s song is a work of art.”
But beneath the promises, the lies, and fatal deceptions, the Siren’s song is a work of art. The question about how one approaches a work of art (in this case, from a ship off a very rocky and treacherous coast) is the key issue here. What Atwood is presenting is not a warning about femme faTates—although that is part of the poem and a key ingredient in the mystique that Atwood has created around the Siren—but a statement about how one should approach a work of art. In The Confessions, St. Augustine sounds an important note when he discusses the relationship between a theatergoer and a play. He is adamant that one should understand that a work of art is a work of illusion, not reality. He concludes his discussion by demanding that one should reserve real emotions for real situations and learn the difference between illusions (which provoke real emotions) and reality (which often does not elicit the same force of passion when perceived by a beholder). Atwood’s Siren knows her song is “boring,” but it utilizes a successful methodology and “works every time.” If art is dangerous and the beholder keeps falling for the same gag or structure time after time, then why should it change?
From Atwood’s point of view, art does not change: only its audience changes. This may explain why she draws so heavily in her writing on the recurring motifs and archetypes of literature, especially stories that entail some level of mythical transformation, magic, and metamorphoses. Her abandoned Ph.D. thesis was to have been on “The English Metaphysical Romance,” a.k.a. the world of the Gothic novel, where the boundary between illusion and reality is perpetually blurred in a dream-like vision of terror and sublime thrill. Horror aside, the other aspect of Gothic literature is its playfulness—albeit a dark and stormy playfulness. The surprise ensuing from a trap, the sense of “gotcha!” is one of the hallmarks of Atwood’s writing, especially in works such as Murder in the Dark, where children’s games become the basis for short murder stories.
The sense of play is evident in the Siren’s tone and rhetorical strategy. For the persona of the poem, that bird/woman with her sisters, the entire event of the “boring” song is just another game to the point where the trap, a system sprung time and time again, is like another round, another turn, and a whole new game. The game itself, even though the structure may be boring, never loses its fascination—either for the Siren or the author—because each time the execution of the rules varies slightly. In gamesmanship (or, in this case, gameswomanship), the play of the game is the key issue. In artistic terms, the play of the poem, the song itself, is what is valuable and meaningful in a work of art. The outcome always remains the same. There is a winner and a loser in a game, and in a work of art, there is the artist and the audience. The trick in understanding and appreciating “Siren Song” is to be able to tell the difference between the singer and the song—to know in advance, as Odysseus did, the perils of confusing the two; to enter the game prepared for the consequences with the full knowledge that the outcome, the artistic experience, is the paramount issue. One should not be fooled by engagement when, at least critically, the beauty of a work of art is its process, not its outcome. To this end, Atwood is taking up Wilfred Owen’s claim that poetry should “warn.” Like those mariners whose “beached skulls” line the shore of the Siren’s island, however, the unprepared who enter into an artistic relationship should expect the worst consequence—one that is fun neither for the reader or the writer.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Alice Van Wart
Alice Van Wart teaches literature and writing in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto. She has published two books of poetry and has written articles on modern and contemporary literature. In the following essay, Van Wart provides an analysis of “Siren Song,” focusing particularly on the idea of duality that is expressed in the work.
“We fit together / like a hook and eye / a fish hook, an open eye” (Power Politics, 1973). So begins a poem by Margaret Atwood, a Canadian author of international prominence and one of Canada’s most prolific writers of fiction, poetry, short stories, children’s stories, and criticism. Before turning to fiction in the 1960s, Atwood had published five acclaimed books of poetry. She continues to write both poetry and fiction.
Atwood’s work illustrates that, as humans, we live in a dynamic relation to the polarities between culture and nature and between the needs of individual consciousness and social concerns. The rational mind must be integrated with the dark side of the psyche, which Atwood sees repressed by conventions of order and civility. To live as humans means that we must learn to accept the duality and not to suppress one or the other. Atwood’s work is integrally connected by these recurring themes, particularly the theme of the inherent duality in life. Critic Sherrill Grace, writing on Atwood’s work, sees it as the central theme in all of her work and calls it a “violent duality.”
The role of mythology (both personal and cultural) in individual life and the theme of transformation are also recurring motifs in Atwood’s work. Particularly in her earlier poetry, Atwood often adapted classical myths and archetypes to her own purposes by transforming them and rearranging their values, largely to a female point of view. Recalling the classical myths by modifying them not only gives her poetry a mythic dimension, but it also allows her to suggest something about her characters’ change and growth.
“Siren Song” is a poem in one of two sequences in Atwood’s third collection, You Are Happy (1974), which deals with transformations. The poems in each grouping are essentially sequential narratives linked by recurring images and motifs that create and enlarge multiple levels of meaning. In both sequences, a character from classical mythology retells a story from her point of view.
In the “Circe/Mud Poems” Atwood loosely uses the story of Circe and Ulysses from Homer’s The Odyssey. She creates a series of poems that examine Circe’s inner struggle against her human feelings for Ulysses when he and his sailors arrive on her island. In The Odyssey, the goddess Circe transforms Ulysses and his men from sailors into swine. In Atwood’s poem, Circe falls in love and wants to change her lover’s status from temporary visitor, as he is in the myth, to a more permanent one. She endeavors to transform Ulysses not from a sailor to a swine, but from a mythic hero to an ordinary man.
From the opening of the poem, Circe makes it clear that she is more interested in men than myths. As she says, “Men with the heads of eagles / no
“Atwood cleverly uses voice and tone in [‘Siren Song’] to convey the nuances behind the Siren’s words and the source of her power.”
longer interest me.” As in Homer’s story, however, Circe fails in her efforts to keep Ulysses with her. Moreover, in the process of trying to transform her lover, she loses much of her own prophetic power. Still, her failure is not total. She discovers parts of herself that she had never experienced before—parts not labeled under the terms sorceress or goddess. In the end, she becomes a woman who can give and receive rather than just take and destroy.
In “Siren Song,” Atwood again loosely uses classical mythology to retell the story of a mythological character. The poem echoes the concerns of the longer, more substantial “Circe/Mud” sequence. It is also told from the first-person point of view of a woman endowed with magical powers. Part of the sequence titled “Songs of the Transformed,” “Siren Song” is one of a number of poems told from unique points of view, including that of various animals, a siren, and a corpse. Embodied in the sequence is the suggestion of many different kinds of entrapment, as well as Atwood’s view that we must learn to live with the different forms of life in this world.
On the surface, “Siren Song” is deceptively simple. Written in nine stanzas of three lines, or tercets, the song is the lament of a powerful, mythical creature trapped by her own power. Whereas in the “Circe/Mud” sequence Atwood recreates the mythic Circe into a woman (who in the end, is wise, strong, capable of love, and learning to trust), in “Siren Song” the female character remains trapped within her own power, although she would like to escape.
“Siren Song” is told from the first-person voice of a Siren, a mythological figure who takes the form of either a bird woman or a fish woman. Originally the daughters of the goddess Calliope, the Sirens were turned into birds by the jealous god Ceres, who gave them songs of such beauty that no one could resist their singing. With their songs, they were able to entice anyone to them; unfortunately, they also devoured the visitors. Later the myth portrayed the Sirens as fish women, often thought of as mermaids, who lived along rocky islands and cliffs of the sea. They reportedly lured ships into the rocks by casting a spell over the sailors with their songs; the vessels subsequently capsized and the men drowned.
Atwood’s Siren takes both forms. In the first stanza, she admits that her song “forces men / to leap overboard in squadrons.” In the fourth stanza, she refers to her “bird suit,” and in the sixth stanza, she complains about her “feathery” companions with whom she sings in a trio. Atwood’s Siren no longer enjoys the power—given to her by legend—to lure men and devour them. In fact, she claims that her song is really a cry for help. In the poem, the Siren addresses the listener/reader. She proposes making an exchange, promising if “you get me out of this bird suit,” she will reveal her secret.
Atwood cleverly uses voice and tone in this poem to convey the nuances behind the Siren’s words and the source of her power. The use of “you” creates a sense of intimacy between the speaker and reader, since the listener is also the reader. The Siren lures the listener, first by establishing a sense of intimacy, then by offering the secret to her power, and, finally, by flattery. However, the Siren’s plea is deceptive, since it is, in fact, her song.
In the first stanza, the Siren’s voice is full of pride when she tells us about the power of her song, “the one song everyone / would like to learn.” She admits that its beauty is “irresistible.” However, she clearly warns that it is also “the song nobody knows / because anyone who has heard it is dead.” A note of contempt creeps into her voice in the second stanza, when she tells us that despite warnings of “beached skulls” along the beach, men still “leap overboard in squadrons” to hear her sing.
After reminding the reader, in the third stanza, that no one has ever heard her song because if he has he is dead or driven crazy (and hence “can’t remember”), the Siren taunts the imaginary reader in the fourth stanza by asking, “Shall I tell you the secret?” She confesses that she is tired of her work and complains about having to look “picturesque and mythical.” The image of the bird woman “squatting” and looking “mythical” shows Atwood’s wry sense of humor and underlines the fact that the Siren really wants to escape the confines of someone else’s sense of what she should be.
In the sixth stanza, the Siren reinforces her distaste for her role. She dislikes singing in a trio with the other “two feathery maniacs.” Her use of the word “maniac” to describe her partners shows her own awareness that her actions are excessive and violent, a sense reinforced when she calls the trio “fatal and valuable.” The oxymoron suggests Atwood’s intent in this poem.
The Siren envisages a possible future without the power of her song. She knows her power is “fatal” because it is tied to death. Yet, as part of a story that constitutes great art, it is also valuable. There is no paradox here, since, in the context of the poem, we are meant to understand how our rigid definitions of the images and roles we give to other people can be limiting and misleading.
In the seventh stanza, the Siren attempts to further entice the listener/reader into her confidence. She tempts with her intimate appeal to “Come closer.” She promises to “tell the secret to you, / to you, only to you.” When her appeal does not work she confesses that her song is “a cry for help” and pleads, quite simply, “Help me!” Still not having succeeded in enticing the listener to save her, even with her promise of revealing her secret, she changes her approach again, this time imploring (in the eighth stanza), “Only you, only you” can help me. Then she adds more coy flattery when she says, “You are unique.” The flattery works “at last.” As she says, “it works every time.”
Ironically, the word “Alas” clarifies the Siren’s duplicitous intentions. The listener has been enticed into believing the Siren’s lament. Once again, the Siren has used her song to lure her prey. It is, she says, “a boring song / but it works every time.” Her song is the final deception. However, the syntax of “at last. / Alas” also conveys the Siren’s own sense of sorrow at her duplicity. She, too, is trapped. She does only what she is meant to do within her artistic confines.
Source: Alice Van Wart, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Atwood, Margaret, Power Politics, Toronto: Anansi, 1973.
Atwood, Margaret, You Are Happy, Cambridge: Harper and Row, 1974.
Austin, J. L., How to do Things with Words, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Dilliott, Maureen “Emerging form the Cold: Margaret Atwood’s You Are Happy” Modern Poetry Studies Vol. VIII, No. 1, spring 1977, pp. 79-80.
Grace, Sherrill, Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, edited by Ken Norris, Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1980.
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Albert Cook, New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fitzgerald, New York: Anchor, 1963.
McCombs, Judith, ed., Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.
Oliver, Mary, A Poetry Handbook, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1994.
VanSpanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro, eds., Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
Vendler, Helen, “Margaret Atwood’s You Are Happy,” The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1975.
Atwood, Margaret, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Boston: Beacon, 1984.
This is a book of reviews and criticism written between 1960 and 1982. Most of the pieces are about women writers, such as Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Kate Millett, Nadine Gordimer, Anne Sexton, Ann Beattie, and Sylvia Plath.
Atwood, Margaret, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.
This is a collection of Atwood’s lectures on Canadian literature at Oxford in 1991 for the Clarendon Lecture Series. The lectures have four topics: the Franklin Expedition in search of the Northwest Passage; Grey Owl, an Englishman who saved the beaver from extinction at the hands of humans; a Tate of the Canadian monster, the Wendigo; and an essay about women and wilderness entitled “Linoleum Caves.”
Atwood, Margaret, Surfacing, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.
Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a Tatented woman artist in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices.
Brown, E. K., On Canadian Poetry, Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1973.
Brown provides a foundation in the history of Canadian poetry in the twentieth century. The three main figures in Brown’s study are Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott, and E. J. Pratt.