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John Donne's "The Indifferent"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

John Donne Portrait

John Donne Portrait

Introduction and Text of "The Indifferent"

The deluded speaker in John Donne's "The Indifferent" dramatizes his free love philosophy. As in "The Flea," "The Apparition," and other earlier Donne poems, his speaker professes his free-wheeling notion that there is no virtue in virginity and faithfulness to a mate.

In "The Indifferent," Donne's speaker also employs the mythological character, the promiscuous Venus to try to persuade his victim that fidelity is a curse while promiscuity is a virtue.

The Indifferent

I can love both fair and brown,
Her whom abundance melts, and her whom want betrays,
Her who loves loneness best, and her who masks and plays,
Her whom the country formed, and whom the town,
Her who believes, and her who tries,
Her who still weeps with spongy eyes,
And her who is dry cork, and never cries;
I can love her, and her, and you, and you,
I can love any, so she be not true.

Will no other vice content you?
Will it not serve your turn to do as did your mothers?
Or have you all old vices spent, and now would find out others?
Or doth a fear that men are true torment you?
O we are not, be not you so;
Let me, and do you, twenty know.
Rob me, but bind me not, and let me go.
Must I, who came to travail thorough you,
Grow your fixed subject, because you are true?

Venus heard me sigh this song,
And by love's sweetest part, variety, she swore,
She heard not this till now; and that it should be so no more.
She went, examined, and returned ere long,
And said, Alas! some two or three
Poor heretics in love there be,
Which think to ’stablish dangerous constancy.
But I have told them, Since you will be true,
You shall be true to them who are false to you.

Reading of "The Indifferent"

John Donne

Commentary

In the seduction poem, "The Indifferent," Donne's speaker dramatizes his philosophy of promiscuity.

First Movement: A Lecher of Inclusivity

I can love both fair and brown,
Her whom abundance melts, and her whom want betrays,
Her who loves loneness best, and her who masks and plays,
Her whom the country formed, and whom the town,
Her who believes, and her who tries,
Her who still weeps with spongy eyes,
And her who is dry cork, and never cries;
I can love her, and her, and you, and you,
I can love any, so she be not true.

The speaker begins his song by boasting about and listing all the types of women he is capable of loving. Love here is, of course, a euphemism for sexual intercourse; thus whenever the speaker employs that term, he does not imply genuine caring that the real meaning of love entails. The speaker thus boasts that he can have sex with all kinds of women of all types of physical description from fair to brown.

This disgusting speaker can copulate with rich women and poor women, women who live in the country or who live in the city. He can appreciate sex with the woman who believes, and her who tries, and with the woman who cries a lot and those who never do. He can, in fact, lie with anyone, and in case the poor listener has not gotten the message, he adds, I can love her, and her, and you, and you.

But then this degenerate adds, "I can love any, so she be not true." He insists that he does prefer that the woman be of the same mind as he, and not be steeped in the virtue of fidelity, which for him is not a virtue but a vice.

Second Movement: "Will no other vice content you?"

Will no other vice content you?
Will it not serve your turn to do as did your mothers?
Or have you all old vices spent, and now would find out others?
Or doth a fear that men are true torment you?
O we are not, be not you so;
Let me, and do you, twenty know.
Rob me, but bind me not, and let me go.
Must I, who came to travail thorough you,
Grow your fixed subject, because you are true?

The speaker then scorns the virtue of fidelity by posing the question, "Will no other vice content you?" He is complaining that his listener, a woman he is trying to seduce, is engaging the vice of fidelity, or, at least, she does believe that fidelity is a virtue. For the speaker holding the opposite view, her thinking is misguided and evil, and therefore he calls it a vice.

The speaker asks, therefore, if there is no other vice she could be happy with. He then asks her why she cannot be content to act promiscuously as her foremothers have done. He becomes contemptibly insulting when he asks, "Or have you all old vices spent, and now would find out others?" Adding further insult, he taunts her that she may fear that men are true and it might "torment [her]."

By true he means the opposite; they are, in fact, like him and not true or faithful, but rather true to a base, primitive nature which he relishes. He then brags that we men are not true, i.e, not faithful, and commands her, "be not you so."

Since men are keen for sexual variety, women should also be equally keen, the speaker believes. He scolds her for wanting to control him with fidelity just because she'd rather experience faithfulness: "Must I . . . / Grow your fixed subject, because you are true?"

Third Movement: "Venus heard me sing this song"

Venus heard me sigh this song,
And by love's sweetest part, variety, she swore,
She heard not this till now; and that it should be so no more.
She went, examined, and returned ere long,
And said, Alas! some two or three
Poor heretics in love there be,
Which think to ’stablish dangerous constancy.
But I have told them, Since you will be true,
You shall be true to them who are false to you.

The speaker then introduces the mythological character Venus, who, he says, had not heard that women prefer fidelity. He reports that Venus, upon hearing his lament, went to research the situation.

After gathering her evidence, Venus claims she found only a handful of women who believed in fidelity, and she chastised those who wanted "to 'stablish dangerous constancy" by cursing them with unfaithful mates.

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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