“The Indifferent” by John Donne is a relatively simple love poem in comparison to his other, more complicated works. In this poem, “he presents a lover who regards constancy as a ‘vice’ and promiscuity as the path of virtue and good sense” (Hunt 3). Because of Donne’s Christian background, this poem was obviously meant to be a comical look at values that were opposite the ones held by Christians. According to Clay Hunt, “[‘The Indifferent’] is probably quite an early poem because of the simplicity and obviousness of its literary methods, its untroubled gaiety, and its pose of libertinism, which all suggest that Donne wrote [the poem] when he was a young man about town in Elizabethan London” (1-2).
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The poem “mocks the Petrarchan doctrine of eternal faithfulness, putting in its place the anti-morality which argues that constancy is a ‘heresy’ and that ‘Love’s sweetest part’ is ‘variety'” (Cruttwell 153). The first two stanzas of the poem seem to be the speaker talking to an audience of people, while the last one looks back and refers to the first two stanzas as a “song.” The audience to which this poem was intended is very important because it can drastically change the meaning of the poem, and has therefore been debated among the critics.
While most critics believe that the audience changes from men, to women, then to a single woman, or something along those lines, Gregory Machacek believes that the audience remains throughout the poem as “two women who have discovered that they are both lovers of the speaker and have confronted him concerning his infidelity” (1). His strongest argument is that when the speaker says, “I can love her, and her, and you and you,” he first points out two random nearby women for “her, and her”, then at the two that he is talking to for “you and you.” The first stanza begins rather simply. Donne starts every line with either “I can love” or “Her who.” According to Hunt, the tone of the first stanza goes from “weary and patient entreaty” to “a climax of irritation at the end” (4) in the lines “I can love her, and her, and you and you / I can love any, so she be not true.” The first eight lines simply list opposite character types, but the last two lines go to “her, and her, and you and you”, then to any, “just before Donne springs the shock statement in the last line” (Hunt 5).
Donne uses the concept of true versus false to stand for constancy and promiscuity. This is first introduced in the last line of the first stanza, and continues throughout the entire poem. The speaker desires a solely sexual relationship with his women, and he believes that such a relationship cannot exist if they are truthful to one another. According to Eleanor McNees, “Donne realizes that erotic license is irreconcilable with norms of truth and troth” (207). Over the first stanza, the speed of the rhythm also increases with the importance. “There is a rhythmic progression from the even, steady movement and moderate stresses of the opening lines to the slower pace, the stronger stresses, and sharply defined metrical pattern of ‘her, and her, and you and you,’ and finally the very heavy accents on ‘any’ and ‘true’ in line 9” (Hunt 5).
In the second stanza, the speaker continues upon the theme of faithfulness being a “vice,” and sexual promiscuity being a virtue. “The sexual tone which was suggested in the first stanza in the anti-romantic details of ‘spongy eyes’ and ‘dry cork’ is intensified by the connotations of the words ‘know’ and ‘rob me’; and the sexual pun on the word ‘travail’ in the following line” (Hunt 5). The speaker is trying to convince the women that he is talking to that promiscuity is a good thing and that neither he, nor the women should be faithful to their mate. This is evident in the lines: Will no other vice content you? . . . Or doth a fear that men are true, torment you? Oh we are not, be not you so, Let me, and do you, twenty know. . . .
Grow your fixed subject, because you are true? In these lines, Donne keeps “the elaborate verse form of stanza 1, but here the metrical scheme breaks down almost entirely from the numerous shifts in pace and the exceptionally heavy stresses” (Hunt 5). In the final line of the second stanza, the speaker asks the woman sarcastically if he must be faithful to her if she is being faithful to him. In the third stanza, the speaker looks back upon the two preceding stanzas. He refers to the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus, and calls the first two stanzas a “song” when he says, “Venus heard me sigh this song.” He then goes on to say that the best thing about love is the variety of women that you get to experience when he says “And by Love’s sweetest part, Variety, she swore.” In this line he also refers to the concepts of “Love” and “Variety” as people. In the following lines, the speaker refers to people who value faithfulness as “heretics:” Poor heretics in love there be, Which think to establish dangerous constancy.
But I have told them, since you will be true, You shall be true to them, who’are false to you. In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker completely changes what he has stood for during the poem and says that you should be faithful to everyone, despite their faithfulness towards you. These two lines do not come from the speaker, but from Donne, who is telling the audience that the morals that the speaker had proposed are completely opposite of the ones that you should uphold. This poem presents a speaker that holds morals opposite the ones accepted by the greater part of society. While this poem is not incredibly complicated, it is very interesting to see how Donne spends the first 25 lines of the poem building up a convincing argument, then completely rebutting it in the final two lines. He refers to promiscuity as a vice and constancy as a virtue, using many sexual references to help illustrate his points. Donne successfully creates a character in a simple love poem that believes that there is nothing more to love than lust, and then uses his point of view to portray a portrait of love that is completely opposite of what Donne wants the reader to get from the poem.
Cruttwell, Patrick. “John Donne.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 24: 153. Hunt, Clay. Donne’s Poetry: Essays in Literary Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954. Machacek, Gregory. “Donne’s The Indifferent.” Explicator [CD-ROM] 53.4 (Summer 1995): p. 192, 3 p. Availible: Magazine Article Summaries Full Text Elite. Item Number: 951025812. McNees, Eleanor J. “John Donne.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 24: 207.