Margaret Atwood’s Siren Song – Analysis

Siren Song by Margaret Atwood

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.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Known for her exploration of women in patriarchal societies through her works, Canadian poet Margaret Atwood explores similar themes in her poem Siren Song, juxtaposing the role of the sirens in Greek mythology as femme fatale with an archetypal role of the damsel in distress.  Expected of perilous mythological creatures that lure male sailors to their demise, the siren of the poem first incites a dangerous curiosity in her victims before manipulating their egos, using her charms as a woman, so to speak, to construct herself as weak and harmless.

Starting softly, Margaret toys with the reader’s curiosity, championing the sirens’ song for its irresistibility. A song unknown only because of the perils (or miraculous amnesia) that await for the listener, contributing a sense of danger through bleak imagery and ominous language (i.e. lines 4 to 9, particularly “beached skulls”). Nonetheless, whatever prior knowledge that the reader may have of these creatures, any peril is now evident, and sirens are no doubt exemplifications of the femme fatale, tempting the reader not with sexuality but with curiosity yet the audience (or sailors in this context) continues to read; of course, what could the song contain to maintain the stranded Sirens continually fed? No doubt, human stupidity.

However, the poem becomes unique in the fourth stanza not because the Siren attempts to lure the reader with a Cadmean victory, but because the Siren begins to describe herself as a victim of circumstance; Atwood frames the fourth stanza as a promised exchange of knowledge for the creature’s ‘salvation’, or escape from her “bird suit”.  With the assumption of the reader’s lack of sharpness at this point, the mention of “bird suit” defeats any distinction between the creature’s mythological origins and the sailor’s species as if the creature was a woman damned to costumery and role performance. This would appeal to the sailors’ egos with an apparent appearance of weakness and may serve as a social critique that brings American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler’s introduction of gender performance to mind.

Producing the intended effects, the Siren now communicates through the first-person perspective, contributing to the artificially sentimental tone of following lines:

13         I don’t enjoy it here
14         squatting on this island
15         looking picturesque and mythical
16         with these two feathery maniacs,
17         I don’t enjoy singing
18         this trio, fatal and valuable.

The Siren appears (or constructs) herself to be a victim, trapped in this island as an involuntary member of the trio. Side note, in the commonly referred text of Homer’s Odyssey, the number of Sirens was two. The Odyssey is, by no means, referenced in this text except through the unlikely interpretation that the Sirens are simply exploiting the long lengths of ancient Greek epics to characterize their heroes with extraordinary strengths (or performances of extraordinary feats) and possessive of a fatal flaw.

However, however real the damnation of the Siren to her hunting grounds may be, peril is not absent as the Siren makes it apparent in the next lines and simply tugs on the fishing line. The “cry for help” becomes more pretentious by the next verse until the song reaches its final stanza, where the Siren shares her sardonic boredom at the capture of its feast; flattery of the reader as “unique/ at last” for his bravery (read: stupidity) is met with self-deprecation, that the poem itself is a “boring song/ but it works every time.”

Bon appetite.

For a biography and content written by Atwood

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