Poetry can be one of the most unique ways of utilizing the written word to tell a story. Skilled poets are capable of making the written word say far more than its own meaning by adapting the poem’s structure, grammar, and theme to be a part of the story as well. Margaret Atwood’s Siren Song is an excellent example of such a poem, one that briefly tells a story through a style that compliments its own meaning, and is enhanced for it greatly. Like a siren itself does, the poem draws the reader in with its content and style both, in what is best described as a fun and well-written story in poetry.
Before Siren Song can be analyzed, its historic context is important. It was written in 1974, and can be found in Atwood’s collection entitled You Are Happy. The poem itself describes the sirens, who have origins in Greek mythology, particularly from Homer’s Odyssey. They are described as being combinations of women, fish, and bird, and had divine origins, though they could be perceived by mortals. In the tales from Ancient Greece, the sirens are noted as being extremely dangerous. They could be found on Sirenum Scopuli, a collection of three small islands marked by dangerous ridges and sharp rocks, the kind that a ship would only go through if it was asking to be destroyed.
What was so dangerous about the sirens was that they were indescribably beautiful, and everything about them followed that, including their voices. In Odyssey, they were known for luring sailors to their deaths, because when men heard their singing and saw their figure, they were consumed by a desire to be with them, so much so that it overrode their reason or even survival instinct, and drove them to their deaths when they attempted to reach the sirens. Odysseus, the central character of poem, wished to hear their song, and so took his ship to Sirenum Scopuli — but not before blocking the ears of his entire crew with beeswax and ordering himself tied to the mast, not to be let down under any circumstances. His crew obeyed, and while he begged and pleaded and threatened after the sirens began to sing, he was not let down by his deaf crew until they were well away from the island. The sirens continue to hold an image in popular culture as a fascinating element from this mythology.
Siren Song Analysis
Stanzas 1 and 2
Siren Song, which you can read in full here, begins with a description of the siren’s song; it reminds us of what the sirens sing. It says that their song is strong enough that even when those men who hear it can see plainly the bodies and bones of those who passed by before them, they still try their best to reach the island where those bodies are to be with the source of the song. And it is described as the one song that people want to know, that everyone wants to learn. It suggests that the song itself is what causes men to be desperate for the singer, and not the voice of the siren who sings it.
The song follows Margaret Atwood’s typical style of being fairly free-versed; there is no rhyme, and each verse can be coalesced to form sentences and lines that make grammatical sense. But still, the structure of the poem is important; it cuts each idea off partway through and brings the reader to the next line in a slow and halting way.
The narrator of Siren Song is revealed to be one of the three sirens, one of the only three beings on earth to understand this powerful song. And yet, the siren presents herself as being tired of being a siren. She views her fellow sirens as “feathery maniacs,” and is tired of being a perfect and mythical siren. When she asks to be freed from her “bird suit,” it suggests that she no longer wants to be a siren, but needs help to get away. Atwood’s choice in wording here is strong — “squatting on this island,” for instance, as well as “feathery maniacs” are word choices that evoke an unpleasant life by being words that are rife with negative connotation.
Stanzas 7 and 8
The siren explains that the song she is singing is a cry for help; that she isn’t singing to sailors to lure them to their deaths, but because she is trying to be saved. The verses abruptly become small again here, a clever way of ensuring that the lines are all short to increase the suspense of what is being read. And as the reader enters the next verse, the siren becomes increasingly begging, saying that she believes the listener of her song is strong enough to overcome, and that he is the only one that can save her — and what man, after all, isn’t looking to save the beautiful siren in the end?
It works every time. The last verse of Siren Song is as abrupt a shift as the last two, giving the impression that while the siren is charming and begging for help, an unfortunate sailor is heading towards her as fast as he can. The “at last” suggests that he has finally arrived, which means he has been killed in his desperation to “save” the siren who is singing to him. We learn here that while the siren is somewhat tired of singing the same old boring song — and who hasn’t heard the one about the damsel in distress? — every sailor wants to save her and everyone who hears the song winds up another victim, exactly as intended.
In a strange way, Atwood makes each reader of the poem a victim of her siren. By breaking up the verses to be short and quick, she forces the reader to move through the poem quickly. It is a clever way to build suspense, and starting by stating that the mystery of the siren’s song will be revealed does build up suspense — like any story, the reader wants to know the ending. It turns out there is no ending; the song has always been obvious, and the unfortunate recipient of the serenade is just like everyone else who’s passed that way by. In this way, the reader is duped as well, which makes this an interesting poem that is both fun and well-written, a strong testament to Atwood’s ability to convey powerful emotion when she wants to, and also to write story pieces that entertain and amuse otherwise.