I wish to offer an interpretation of Donne's "The Indifferent" that emerges from a reconsideration of the poem's implied audience. Those critics who discuss in detail the poem's rhetorical situation typically maintain that its implied audience changes over the course of its enunciation. Arthur Marotti, for example, claims that "through the first seven and one half lines, the poem rhetorically portrays a speaker addressing an audience of sympathetic males, but with the pronoun shift in the eighth line, he begins to speak to an audience of women"; Marotti adds that "although this female audience is technically plural . . . the impression gradually created by [the second] stanza is that the lover is really interested in addressing one particular woman whose behavior demands of him a response he is unwilling to make" (76-77,italics added). Earl Miner similarly claims that we are to imagine the audience changing as the poem is uttered: in the opening seven and one half lines, the speaker is either "musing to himself . . . addressing some as yet unspecified friend . . . or . . . speaking as it were into the air, that is to the reader"; then "the last part of the eighth line and all the second stanza introduce what seems a completely different audience: the specified women addressed in the second person" (15). And like Mariotti (as well as Norman Carlson and Patricia Garland Pinka, who similarly suggest that the audience changes from women to a woman), Miner seems determined, despite the poem's language, to consider Donne's ultimate audience as singular: "without the plural 'mothers'" in line 11, Miner claims, "we would surely suppose that the stanza addresses but one woman" (16,italics added).
But Donne does use the plural "your mothers," and it is presumably our task as literary critics to discover what the poem means as the poet wrote it, not what it would mean if he had written it slightly differently. And in fact it is that plural--along with the phrase "you and you" in line 8--that can help us to envision a stable audience for the poem. We can imagine the poem being spoken to an audience of precisely two women who have discovered that they are both lovers of the speaker and have confronted him concerning his infidelity.
In this reading, the point of the poem--as in others of Donne's poems, such as "The Flea" or "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"--is to portray a speaker in the process of extemporaneously constructing a tendentious and self-serving (but rhetorically dazzling) argument; here that argument takes the form of an escalating bravado. The speaker initially responds to this confrontation with a libertine swagger: "I can love both faire and browne. . . ." He then applies the general proposition that he can love multiple partners to the specific situation: "I can love," he asserts, pointing to some nearby women, "her, and her, and," addressing in turn the two women confronting him, "you and you."
The advantage of this reading is that one needn't explain away the plural "mothers" of line 11 as indicating a "technically plural," but actually singular audience; indeed, the speaker's implied familiarity with the amorous behavior of his accusors' mothers perhaps heightens the speaker's comic bravado, amounting to a veiled boast that the listeners' mothers too have been among those the speaker has been able to love!
The shift to the past tense in the final stanza--"Venus heard me sigh this song"--for which critics have also had difficulty accounting, in this reading simply takes the speaker's bravado one step further still. Not only can he love a variety of women, not only does he love the two women to whom he is speaking, but he has found himself in this very position--confronted by two women, each of whom thought she was his one-and-only--before! The speaker has been compelled to utter the preceding two stanzas on a previous occasion, with results (Venus seeking out and rebuking the few existing "heretics in love") that he relates in the third stanza for the benefit of his latest lovers.
Carlson, Norman E. "The Drama of Donne's 'The Indifferent.'" South Central Review 4.2 (Summer 1987):65-69.
Donne, John. The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets. Ed. Helen Gardner. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1965.
Marotti, Arthur. John Donne: Coterie Poet. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.
Miner, Earl. The Metaphysical Mode from Donne to Cowley. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1969.
Pinka, Patricia Garland. This Dialogue of One: The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1982.
By GREGORY MACHACEK, Marist College