John Donne - The Indifferent

Critical Analysis of "The Indifferent" by John Donne


"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). 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,
w hile 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