Study Guide

Siren Song Analysis

By Margaret Atwood

  • Sound Check

    Maybe you were expecting "Siren Song" to sound more like, well, a song. That seems reasonable enough. But the fact that we never hear a real "song" per se is what makes this poem, and the purpose behind it, all the more relevant to what a Siren really is. A song can't be mysterious and alluring if we can anticipate exactly how it will sound and what it will do. So this "song" that doesn't really sound like a song is exactly the sort of thing a Siren might sing in order to catch us off guard and therefore keep us ripe for seduction.

    Our "song" sounds more like a conversation that the speaker is having with us. Unfortunately we don't realize just how dangerous the song really is until it's too late. That's because the lines nevertheless flow effortlessly into one another, as they would in a conversation. That smooth-sounding flow is no accident, though. It's achieved through enjambment and idiomatic language. Together, these techniques combine to make the poem sound informal and casual (as in, "get me out of this bird suit").

    But there are also times when we're reminded that we're still dealing with a poem. The anaphora we see in the repetition of phrases like "the song" and "only you" helps to maintain the song's poetic sonic structure without sounding too artsy. Repeating those key phrases also serves the purpose of hypnotizing us with all the flattering and alluring language that encourages us to "come closer," as we're lulled into a daze of feeling special and unique. So, even if this isn't your typical "song," it still has those poetic qualities that make for an enchanting sound that "works every time."

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We don't really hear all that much about Sirens anymore. But for those of us who are vaguely familiar with Greek mythology or The Odyssey, the name might ring a bell. So we may need to refresh our memory with a quick Google search to get the gist of what the speaker means by "Siren Song," but for most of us, we get that we're talking about an allusion to sexy bird-ladies singing alluring songs.

    "Siren Song" is also a kind of archetype (original model) for the ideas we associate with seductive villains who may appear as if they need some help or are innocent. How can anyone resist that enchanting song that's actually a "cry for help"? So the title also gives us a little sneak peek into the poem's themes that explore the problems with assuming who's the predator and who's the prey. Along those same lines, the ambiguity of the title helps to pulls us in. When we first get started, it seems like the speaker is telling us about the Siren song. By the end, though, we realize (too late) that the poem's title is not what this poem is about, it is what this poem is. We were listening to the Siren song all along.

    Alternatively, the title may get us thinking about how men in particular can be easily fooled into playing the hero and falling victim to the very thing that they sought to save (namely pretty women). Remember: the Siren myth has been around for a mighty long time. Homer is thought to have lived around the seventh or eighth century BC and the Siren myth was around for some time before that, so you get the idea. So, the title itself has been around, but Atwood gives this classic a way more modern spin.

  • Setting

    In terms of setting, we're going old-school in a new way with "Siren Song." We might at first imagine the kind of "picturesque and mythical" island Homer paints for us in The Odyssey when we hear from our Siren-speaker. But, as we hear more from her, we notice that she's deliberately omitting any specific details in terms of what the island actually looks like (mainly because she's bored with the whole thing). In that sense, the setting is largely left for us to paint in our imaginations.

    We do know that the Sirens are wearing "bird suits" (good times) and that they're "squatting" on the island. So, as readers, we may imagine ourselves out at sea like the rest of the sailors that encounter the Sirens. The "beached skulls" may bring to mind the kind of ominous and fatal consequences of venturing too close to the island, but we're too busy listening to our speaker to care. So the poem's setting is also made vague by our distraction as readers by the speaker's "cry for help."

    If you think about it, then, the poem's setting is really the end for us. That's because the moment we're able to actually "see" the island is also the moment when we realize that we're being lured to our deaths. So by keeping the setting vague and undefined, we understand that the speaker is preparing us for our last scene, so to speak. We don't get any sense of focus until it's too late. In the end, we become part of the setting, as just another one of those "beached skulls."

  • Speaker

    Our speaker of "Siren Song" is a… Siren, so we get to hear what these ladies are all about directly from the source. No need to call Odysseus in on it this time. But she's not the kind of Siren from the eight century BC. Typically, we don't hear much from the Sirens because, well, anyone who has heard their song is dead. Usually we just learn from sailors that they're super-hot and sing these enchanting songs that can kill you if you're not careful. End of story. But this Siren is modern with a little bit of attitude and sass and we even get to hear her speak like one of us. She could be straight out of Mean Girls, Siren-style, complaining about how "bored" she is.

    Her casual and informal voice is what really adds that modern flare. She doesn't need prescribed meters and rhymes to catch our attention. In fact, she's aware that times have changed and that folks nowadays don't need all of that in a poem. So she uses familiar idiomatic words and phrases like bird suit, feathery maniacs, and squatting to make us feel more comfortable. Her syntax is familiar too (the way she phrases things) and might even make us feel like she's someone we know when she says things like, "will you get me out of this bird suit?"

    We also can't forget that our speaker is sneaky and clever too, though, all while sounding modern and hip. She lures us in with her enchanting talk about the "song everyone would like to learn" without actually telling us she's been singing the song to us all along. She flatters us in the way a seductive villain might, and makes us feel "unique" without appearing particularly "mythical."

    It's interesting, we think, that the way this speaker gets to us as readers is through that unique angle. Could this poem be highlighting a key marketing technique? Think about: everything that is sold these days can be customized (cars, iPhones, software—you name it) to reflect the shiny, special, pure nugget of humanity that is Y-O-U. But do we really need to spend money to be a unique person? These companies sure seem to think so. And guess who else does. That's right, our super-seductive Siren-speaker.

    So, while we're busy looking for the "mythical" and dangerous Siren, we forget that we're actually talking to the real deal, which makes those "secrets" of hers all the more appealing. Plus, since she makes us feel bad for her in that "bird suit" and with her "cry for help," we can't help but feel obligated to help her. She sounds so familiar and honest—why wouldn't we trust her? And there you have the makings of a true, modern Siren.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    "Siren Song" sounds pretty simple, once we understand what a Siren is and what they usually do. So, if we have a little background in The Odyssey or Greek myths, the poem makes perfect sense. The walk is made even smoother since Atwood has updated everything for us with a modern, easy-flowing, conversational tone.

  • Calling Card

    Songs With Two Sides

    You'll notice that Atwood has a lot of poems with "Song" in the title. That's not to say that they sound singsong in any way, but rather they sound like songs because they're lyrical explorations of what it means to be two things at once. What does that mean? Simply put, you'll see that Atwood likes to explore themes of being on both sides of the same coin: male-female, nature-man, self-other. You'll see a lot of duality (opposing ideas) that tend to isolate her speakers from the world around them, not unlike those Sirens trapped on that "picturesque" island.

    Feminist ideas also echo in much of Atwood's work, but you'll also notice that her protagonists (usually female voices) are never pushovers or passive victims. They may suffer, but they do so in order to better understand the world around them. To top it off, Atwood often has a wonderful sense of humor and wit in her poetry that doesn't wallow too much in self-pity. She'll throw in a few ironic twists (like we see in "Siren Song") that tend to make light of the whole thing, no matter how severe the circumstances may be.

    For a better idea of her style, check out these gems: "Bull Song," "Carrying Food Home in Winter," "Song of the Worms."

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    We're a long way from the eighth century BC, so it's fitting that Atwood would choose to bring "Siren Song" up to speed with free verse, rather than the normal dactylic hexameter that we usually see in epic poetry. After all, her speaker isn't speaking to Odysseus anymore. She's speaking to folks like us, who have shorter attention spans (and less skill with a spear) and need to hear the point sooner than later.

    So, we have nine stanzas with three lines each (which fits with the traditional number of three Sirens) and lots of enjambment (lines flowing into one another without punctuation). The lines themselves are short, sweet, and to the point, like what we see in line 7: "the song nobody knows." Nice and simple, right? The enjambment between lines and stanzas also helps to maintain the speaker's casual and informal voice. She's not lingering over her words too much or getting super-dramatic at any given time with lots of "Ah's!" or "Oh's!" Instead, she's keeping us in suspense by carrying our reading eyes over from the abrupt end of one line into the start of the one right after. Check out lines 21-22 again to see how she breaks up "this song" ("This song what?" we demand to know) with "is a cry for help" ("Whew! We finally found out"). The use of enjambment here builds suspense and draws us deeper, and more unwittingly, into the Siren's song.

    But that's not all. She's also telling us her little story by using anaphora. By repeating clauses like "the song" and "only you," we get that poetic vibe without being hit over the head with perfect meters and rhymes. So, we feel a bit freer with this "Siren Song," which makes us we feel as if this Siren-speaker is speaking plainly to us. She could even be someone we know (excluding the whole luring sailors to death bit). Of course, that's all part of the deadly allure, as we find out at the end of the poem.

  • Sirens

    The sexy ladies of yesteryear are back with a modern twist in Atwood's "Siren Song." These Sirens aren't your ordinary bird-ladies from Greek mythology. In fact, they're kind of bored with the whole "mythical" version of themselves. But since those sailors keep showing up, they've still got a job to do.

    • Lines 1-3: It's all about the Siren and her song that's "irresistible." We know Atwood is working with the classical definition of what a Siren does, but we're already hearing this Siren's more modern voice.
    • Lines 10-12: Lest we forget whether we're dealing with classical or contemporary Sirens, their job is still the same and they're still villains at the end of the day. In other words, we can't trust them completely, especially when they flatter us with "secrets."
    • Lines 13-18: Our Siren-speaker wants out of her "picturesque and mythical" interpretation of herself. She's bored with the island and those "feathery maniacs" too. So, we feel bad for her in a way, which isn't so typical when we're dealing with Siren myths.
    • Lines 22-24: In true Siren style, our speaker plays the damsel-in-distress here. She needs help and we're the only ones to save her. But since she's been flattering us so much with all her "unique" talk, we don't fully realize we're being duped—until, you know, we're goners.
  • The Song

    We may get sick of hearing all about "the song," since it's all the speaker talks about from the very beginning. We're waiting to hear what this song is all about, since she keeps hyping it up so much. But while waiting, we fail to realize that we've been hearing the song all along, and that's why we end up dead like all the rest of those sailors. Oops.

    • Lines 3-6: Men are leaping "overboard in squadrons" because the song's so good, even though they're leaping right into an island of "beached skulls." So at this point we know that we're dealing with some dangerous stuff, but we're so curious to hear the song for ourselves that we don't really care about the danger.
    • Lines 7-9: To top things off, no one has ever heard the song and those that have are dead. So we're even more curious at this point, which is emphasized by the speaker's anaphora in repeating "the song." It doesn't even get a proper name, which makes it more elusive. 
    • Lines 22-24: Then we find out that the song is really a "cry for help." And after all the flattery, we believe the speaker when she tells us this. Maybe the song is also a symbol here for the assumptions we often have regarding women and their vulnerability. 
    • Lines 25-27: Why is the song boring? Because it gleans the same results: duped folks like us who fall right into the trap because we think we're different and "unique." Meanwhile, our speaker has been singing the same song to everyone and saying they're unique too. Maybe the boring song is also indicative of the flat two-dimensional representations of women and femininity in literature. Check out our "Themes: Women and Femininity" section for more about that.
  • Secrets

    We all like it when other people tell us their secrets. It makes us feel special and trusted. The same is true in "Siren Song" when our speaker offers to tell us her secret. She even goes so far as to say we're "unique," so we've got the added bonus of feeling special and worthy of the Siren's secret (even if, you know, it gets us killed).

    • Lines 10-12: The speaker first offers her secret here in exchange for the favor of getting her out of that "bird suit." So we know right from the beginning that this secret comes with a cost.
    • Lines 19-21: Then she repeats the fact that she'll tell the secret only to us, making us feel special. Maybe we're picking up on the flattery at this point and getting a little suspicious, but we'll believe her anyway as we "come closer" and therefore nearer to our own death.
    • Lines 22-24: Hmm. It turns out that the secret (and song) is actually a "cry for help," and of course we believe our speaker. By the end the secret incites us to play the hero and we know how well that works out when we're dealing with Sirens. (Hint: we die.)
  • Steaminess Rating

    PG

    We know that Sirens are supposed to be sexy, so of course there are some sexual innuendos in "Siren Song." But there's no sex actually happening, since anyone who hears the song is dead. Oh yeah, that includes us, too.