John Donne’s “The Indifferent” is a 27-line lyric poem dealing with secular love. It was first printed in Poems, By J. D. with Elegies on the Authors Death (1633), although it circulated, in various versions, in a number of manuscripts before and after that date. Robin Robbins, a recent editor, guesses that the poem may perhaps have been written in the early 1590s.
In this poem, a male speaker begins by asserting that he is capable of loving a woman with a light complexion and woman with a dark complexion. He can love a rich woman and a poor woman. He can love a woman who likes being alone or a woman who enjoys social events. He can love a woman from a rural area or a woman raised in a city. He can love a woman who is ready to believe men’s claims and one who must test such claims before believing. He can love a woman who is constantly weeping, and he can love a woman who never weeps. He seems to point to a variety of different specific women and says that he is capable of loving any single one of them—just as long as that woman is not faithful.
In the second stanza, he asks women why they cannot be content with old vices but must instead invent new ones (such as faithfulness). Do they perhaps worry that men may be faithful? He assures women that men are not faithful, and he urges women not to be faithful either. He gives one particular woman permission to “know” (including sexually) twenty men and gives himself permission to “know” twenty women. He does not want to be bound to one woman; he wants his freedom. Women, he asserts, make men work (perhaps in bed; certainly because of the curse of the Biblical fall). Does the particular woman mentioned earlier now want him to lose his independence just because she claims she is faithful?
In the third stanza, the speaker announces that Venus, the goddess of secular love, overheard him speaking and declared that she had never before heard anything similar. She decided that faithfulness in women should be prohibited. Venus left briefly, only to return and report that while there did seem to be several women who actually wanted to be faithful, she advised them that they would be faithful to unfaithful men.
In terms of style, this poem is highly typical of Donne’s writings. It presents a speaker directly addressing another person (and other persons). As in other poems by Donne, that speaker is witty, inventive, and argumentative. He makes an unusual and counter-intuitive argument, and the poem as a whole ends paradoxically. This text strongly resembles classical poems (such as those of Ovid), and its phrasing is brisk, accessible, highly imaginative, and laced with erotic puns.
Thematically, the poem is characteristic of Donne’s works in its emphasis on the complications of secular love and in its focus on a common male perspective concerning relations between men and women. Some scholars have suggested that poems such as this one may have been circulated in manuscript among young male friends of Donne’s, who may have enjoyed its cynicism about women or, at the very least, its clever wit. If we fail to take the speaker completely seriously, the poem can even perhaps be read as a mockery of the very unfaithfulness of men that it seems to endorse.