John Donne’s “Woman’s Constancy” is a 17-line lyric poem on matters of 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 have been written between 1592 and 1598.
In this poem, a male speaker asks a woman what she will say when, despite having loved him for a day, she leaves him tomorrow. He asks whether she will backdate a vow made to a new lover, or whether she will claim that she and the speaker are not the same persons they once were, so that she no longer has any obligations to him. Next he wonders whether she will assert that vows made in fear of the wrath of Cupid (the god of love) may be forsworn. He then wonders if she will try to argue that just as marriages are dissolved at death, so contracts between lovers are dissolved during sleep (which resembles death). Will she try to claim, he wonders, that in order to be true to herself she must be false to him? He then exclaims that she is a “Vain lunatic” before he next explains that he could challenge all her arguments and win any debate if he wanted to do so. However, he proclaims that he chooses not to do so, because tomorrow he may feel as she does.
Stylistically, this poem is typical of Donne’s writings in numerous ways. It is dramatic (since it involves one person speaking directly to another); it is a dramatic monologue (since it presents only one person’s point of view); it deals with love or problems in love (as do many of Donne’s poems); and it is witty (especially in the speed with which the speaker’s mind imagines new arguments and also in the paradoxical conclusion he announces at the very end). The language is full of questions, suggesting that the speaker wants a response, even though we never hear from the woman. Moreover, the phrasing and basic meaning of the poem are quite accessible, as is true in many of Donne’s love lyrics.
Donne’s poems often present arguments made (or, in this case, anticipate and preempt arguments), and his presentation of what passes for “love” in many contexts is often sarcastic, satirical, and even a bit cynical, as in this work. Irony is a major feature of this poem, as it is of many of Donne’s works, and the poem reveals Donne’s inventiveness as the speaker imagines one paradoxical or outlandish argument after another. The wit of the poem makes it humorous, another frequent trait of many of Donne’s love poetry. The poem deals with a common situation in secular love, and so it can appeal to a wide range of readers. Certainly even women (not just men) could have seen the personal relevance of a poem mocking the fickleness of a kind of love that was merely apparent, not real. Because it deals with the common Renaissance theme of mutability, the poem is entirely typical of its era.