John Donne’s “The Indifference” is a love poem that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Not only is the meaning of the text debatable, but the audience for which the poem was intended can be argued as well. The language Donne uses leaves room for the reader’s imagination and intellect to take over and decide to whom he is talking and why. The author is writing to a specific audience for a specific reason, trying to convey his point through his verse. While not all people agree as to whom this poem is intended for or whom the speaker is actually talking to, I have a good understanding as to what Donne is trying to accomplish by writing “The Indifference” and whom the voice of the piece is actually talking to. The interpretation that I found to be most convincing is that he is speaking to a woman, who is by herself, and he is letting her know what kind of qualities (or lack there of) he is looking for. He is giving a disclaimer to her on the type of person he is and how he views relationships so she knows what she’s getting herself into.
The first stanza starts off with the speaker listing opposite character types. All of the types listed refer to different types of women, “Her whom the county formed, and whom the town” and “Her who still weeps with spongy eyes, / And her who is dry cork, and never cries” (ll. 4-7). The speaker is not referring to one type of woman in particular, but to all women in general. He is telling the woman that he is addressing know just how many different types of woman he can or will potentially be interested in.
Another interesting aspect of the first stanza is Donne’s wording at the beginning of each line. He starts each with either “I can love” or “Her who”. This is his passive way of informing the reader as to what type of woman he can and wants to love: any woman who is alive and willing to take a chance on him. It is not until the final two lines of the stanza that he actually puts any requirements as to what kind of a woman he specifically wants, “I can love her, and her, and you and you, / I can love any, so she be not true” (ll. 8-9). This is where we see that the speaker has no intention of being monogamous, he is promiscuous and wants his women to be also. This attitude reflects the age and mindset that Donne was in when he wrote this poem (more on this later).
In the first stanza, it is hard to tell who the actual audience is. I get a picture of a man standing in front of a crowd or on a podium telling all who will listen just what kind of woman he is looking for. The audience could be a group of men who he is trying to impress by telling them that he could have any of the number of different women. It could also be that he is speaking to a crowd of women who he is hoping will be swayed into going home with him. Or he could be speaking to two women, possibly two former lovers who have found out that he has been untrue to them both. He may be trying to talk his way out of the situation in hopes that the two women will see his point of view. This is shown in the first line, “I can love both fair and brown” and also in the description of the different kinds of women he speaks about in lines two through seven. He could be describing the qualities that he likes in each of them, hoping that they will see that he is not being promiscuous with them out of vein, but because he likes some variety in his love life. This is where the reader needs to decide for himself whom the speaker is addressing.
In the second stanza, we see the speaker’s persuasiveness as he tries to tempt the woman into being promiscuous like he is. He desires a solely sexual relationship and believes that such a relationship cannot exist if they are faithful to one another. It’s not that he wants to be untruthful to her; he has no problem telling her outright that he wants to be free and do as he pleases, but what he does not want is to be monogamous. We see this in the final two lines of the stanza, “Must I, who came to travail thorough you, / Grow your fixed subject, because you are true?” (ll. 17-18) This shows that the speaker is terrified of being with one woman only. He presents her with numerous questions to see just how serious she is about him being faithful.
Another interesting aspect of his fear in becoming committed to one woman is in the second stanza. His use of the word “vice” shows just how disgusted he is with the idea of being faithful. He sees faithfulness as a “vice,” something that will eventually hold him down and keep him from being the free spirited person he wants to be. In the final line of the stanza, we see his use of sarcasm in the way he asks the woman if he must be faithful to her just because she is faithful to him.
In the third and final stanza, the speaker reflects back on the first two and refers to them as a “song” that he has been singing to the Roman Goddess of love, Venus, “Venus heard me sigh this song” (L. 19). This plea to a higher power shows his beliefs in love and the ultimate goal for the kind of love he desires. He gets easily bored with monogyny, therefore he desires variety: “And by love’s sweetest part, variety, she swore” (L. 20). The desire to have a variety of lovers is more powerful than his desire to have companionship. This further shows his sexual desire because the variety he is looking for is not one of intellect, but rather of lust and his need to fulfill it.
In the final two lines of the poem Venus speaks out and says just how disgusted she is with the idea of monogyny. She tells the woman whom the speaker has been addressing that since she is intent on being true, she will be true to everyone, even the people who are not true to her. She is saying that she knows no matter what he does, she will stay true to him. Venus is suggesting that she should be more like him, open and free loving. This Venus does not like monogyny and believes that those who do are missing out on the true meaning of love: to love everyone who is willing to love you back. By the woman staying true to the speaker, she is robbing herself of her own freedom of love.
This poem presents a speaker that holds values and morals that are opposite of the ones that are held by most members of society. His attitude toward commitment and faithfulness are of low moral and ethical standards. I think that Donne wrote this poem in his youthful, carefree days. It is apparent that he had no need for a “companion” and all he wanted was lust and sex. I found this to be rather interesting because of Donne’s Christian background. I would have thought that he would have written about something more pure than infidelity and promiscuity. By this interpretation I can see how Donne was coined the nick name “The Wicked” John Donne because of his obscure views on relationships and women in general. It just goes to show that even in the seventeenth century not all men were full of pure and moral thoughts.