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John Donne's "The Indifferent"

Updated on April 12, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

John Donne Portrait

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Indifferent"

The 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

Source

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

Source

Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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