John Donne's love poetry has been categorized by some critics, including Theodore Redpath, according to its positive or negative tone. "The Indifferent" falls into the latter grouping. Donne adopts the prevalent attitude that women almost always proved inconstant. Men did as well, but they did not suffer the same social stigma as did women who engaged in multiple sexual relationships. Religious dogma blamed women's treacherous nature for the ills of the human race, based on Eve's sacrificing the future happiness of man by indulging her appetites in the Garden of Eden. In addition, civil laws of inheritance made clear the importance of monogamy of women, who produced sons who would inherent family property.
As might be expected of Donne, his "attack" against women proved ironic. After supporting the idea of women's inconstancy, he praises that trait, rather than condemning it. Much of his writing was a reaction against social and poetic traditions, including the Petrarchan tradition that praised the perfect woman, an ideal, rather than viewing women in a realistic manner. Shakespeare countered that tradition in his famous Sonnet 130, which begins, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," and Donne does the same in "The Indifferent." He does not use the sonnet form, instead writing three nine-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of abbacccdd, his meter varying.
The speaker begins expressing his open-minded approach, telling his female audience,
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.
He first describes opposites in terms of physical appearance, with "fair and brown" meaning both blonde and brunette, and continues describing opposites in desires and appetites. Some of his phrases incorporate exaggerated and unpleasant comparisons to help make his point, such as "And her who is dry cork, and never cries." He concludes his first stanza, again making clear he is an equal-opportunity lover by stating, "I can love her, and her, and you, and you, / I can love any, so she be not true." The final line is contrary to traditional ideas, in that this man specifically desires a false woman.
The playfully taunting tone continues into the second stanza as the speaker asks a representative woman why "no other vice" contents the female. He wonders, "Doth a fear that men are true torment you?" Donne's use of alliteration and hidden rhyme in the insertion midline of the word true prove enjoyable and call attention to his method, emphasizing the importance of wordplay. The speaker immediately makes clear his jest in telling the woman that men are not true, adding, "be not you so." He invites her, "Rob me, but bind me not, and let me go." His next lines emphasize the importance of his personal freedom. He does not want expectations of true devotion to burden his relationship.
In his final stanza, Donne allows his speaker an allusion to Venus, goddess of love, who becomes complicit in his quest to free all women from the burden of constancy. upon first hearing the speaker's "song" Venus "swore, / She heard not this till now; and that it should be so no more." Convinced that women should not hold men captive by remaining true to them,
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.
Donne extends his reversal of societal expectations through the end of his poem, with a parody of the
232 "IN THE HOLY NATIVITY OF OUR LORD GOD: A HYMN SUNG AS BY THE SHEPHERDS"
method of romantic poets who called on classical tradition to support their idealization of women. His Venus remains as practical as Donne's speaker, concluding, "But I have told them, Since you will be true, / You shall be true to them who are false to you." She tells women they are foolish to be constant with inconstant men. Repeating the word true, Donne offers a double meaning of the term, considered in terms of constancy, as well as in the speaking of truth. He obviously believes that society does not speak the truth regarding men and constancy.
Thus, Donne concludes his tongue-in-cheek presentation by indicting members of his own sex for the sin that they had traditionally employed to condemn women. Most of his romantic poetry presented women in a positive light, or at least not a negative one. As a young man, Donne seemed to enjoy women almost as much as he enjoyed writing witty poetry.
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