John Donne – 3 – Go and Catch A Falling Star (Pondering the Mandrake Root)


Mandrake illustration from a 15thc. manuscript Tacuinum Sanitatis

Continuing with Allen Ginsberg’s analysis of John Donne’s poem, Go and Catch A Falling Star

AG: ..Yes. She still wouldn’t remain true. In other words,  You got to “go catch a falling star”, “get with child a mandrake root”. Anybody know what that reference is?

Student:  (There was a note on it in the book)

AG: Well, yeah, but it didn’t give you the full thing. It’s the.. On the gallows tree, when.. as (William) Burroughs pointed out, when people’s necks are snapped when they’re hung (and also beheaded, I think), there’s an involuntary spasm of the nervous system, which creates orgasm, and the droplets of the orgasm dripping below the gallows tree nourish the mandrake root, which is a little forked creature, a little forked root, fork-ed root, somewhat phallic, and so, it was always… roughly resembling a human body, credited with human attributes, as a medicine supposed to promote conception (as it says here)…..

Student: A little bit like ginseng

AG: Yeah

Student: : It was somewhat hard to find, Yes?

Peter Orlovsky: It was something that was hard to find?

AG: No, but it was supposed to grow under the gallows trees. That’s a fair(ly) (common).. Mandrake – I think we have it in our garden. It’s a..what.. it’s a poison, isn’t it?

Peter Orlovsky; Burdock (but burdock’s not poison)

AG: No no no. Mandrake is a root, rooted thing,. and is something like in the class of lobelia or something like that, one of of the poison..

Student: Poisonous hallucinogenics?

AG: No – like solanaceous – remember solanaceous?

Student: It’s not like..

AG:..What do they call it? What are the things that used to grow….

Student: They have leaves that are sort of shaped  like that   [describes leaf-shape]

AG: Hmm. I haven’t seen it.

Student: Like an elongated heart.

Peter Orlovsky; You’ve seen a mandrake?

Student; Uh-huh

Peter Orlovsky: Where?

Student: They grow all over the place

AG (to Peter Orlovsky): By Ed Urichs goat house [in Cherry Valley] there was a…blue..what was of those purple violet things…

Peter Orlovsky: Burdock, those are burdock, those are full bloomed burdock

AG: No, no it was another thing. Well I don’t know.I can’t remember it. It was a poisonous plant, a plant that had poison, had poison. Yeah..

[Audio for the above can be heard here, begining at approximately thirty-one-and-three-quarter minutes in andconcluding at approximately thirty-three-and-three-quarter minutes in]

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