John Donne: Poems

John Donne: Poems Summary and Analysis of "The Indifferent"

The poet will willingly have an affair with any woman, regardless of her physical or emotional attributes, so long as she isn’t trying to be faithful to her current lover or to him. Don’t plan on a man being faithful to you either, the poet tells the woman he is now wooing; just about everyone plays around. Don’t bind a man; he will stray. Even Venus investigated the issue and verified that everyone cheats on one another.


“The Indifferent” has three nine-line stanzas following a rhyme scheme of abbacccdd with varied meter. Each stanza has two parts, with the last two lines consisting of a rhyming couplet.

Donne employs his famous sardonic wit; here is a man whose “love” is non-exclusive and can be directed at multiple women at the same time. The title reflects the attitude of the speaker in the first stanza. He is indifferent to whom he chooses as a lover; she may be “fair” or “brown” (line 1), rich or poor (line 2), solitary or social (line 3), and so on. The repetition of the pronouns and opposite qualities serves to emphasize the point. Yet, he can love both “fair and brown” (emphasis added)—he can love them all simultaneously rather than merely one at a time. He thus hints that his audience is made up of multiple women (“her, and her, and you, and you,” line 8).

He concludes his litany of available lovers with his one caveat: the only woman he cannot love is one who is faithful (“true,” line 9). He does not want to be bound to a single relationship when he has love to spread everywhere (“Rob me, but bind me not,” line 16). Indeed, marriage and children would just weigh him down.

In the second stanza, the wooer gives additional reasons for the woman to give in to his advances. Being true is a “vice,” while “your mothers” chose infidelity and turned out fine (line 11). Or, if she fears that men are faithful while she might be false, that is simply incorrect: “O we are not, be not you so” (line 14).

In the final stanza, the speaker invokes Venus to support his case. Upon hearing that there are women seeking to be faithful lovers, Venus swears “She heard not this till now” (line 21). Turning traditional concepts of fidelity upside down, the pagan goddess of love states that the true “heretics” (line 24) are the ones who desecrate her religion of free love and indiscriminate sex. This is not simply a matter of ideology; Venus engaged in an empirical study and “examined” what people actually do (line 22). The goddess further calls faithfulness “dangerous” (line 25) and points out to the “true” women that their lovers or husbands are “false to you” (line 27).

Yet again, the hyperbole sends us looking for a spiritual meaning beyond the surface. After all, it seems unlikely that almost 100 percent of humanity cannot and does not live monogamously. Rather, it is more likely to read the poem, consistent with the Christian tradition, as arguing that all have sinned and have been faithless toward God. The speaker is therefore in the place of a satanic deceiver and tempter.