‘Woman’s Constancy’ by John Donne is a seventeen line poem that is contained within one block of text. The text was likely written sometime in the 1590s. It was first officially printed in Poems, By J.D. with Elegies on the Authors Death, in 1633. This was not the first line it appeared in print though. It seen, read, and distributed in the years prior to and directly after Donne’s death.
The poem is structured with a rhyme scheme of aabbcc, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. The familiar simple rhyme scheme contrasts with the lines of a variety of lengths. Some stretch out of seven or eight words while the shortest is only four.
Donne’s speaker’s tone is fairly emotionless as he questions his lover. Although the questions are numerous and at times absurd, they do not contain any hint of the passion the two shared. He questions her “constancy” and loyalty to him, even though she has yet to give him a reason to do so. The speaker does not receive a response from the listener throughout the seventeen lines, forcing the piece into the form of a dramatic monologue. This means there is a single speaker talking directly to another person.
Summary of Woman’s Constancy
The poem begins with the speaker asking if his listener and lover, will leave him in the morning. He wonders what excuse she will have for breaking the oaths they made the night before. The following lines include a number of options from staying true to herself to honoring a new vow made with another man.
Donne concludes the text by having his speaker admit that he is just as likely to use any of these excuses in the morning as the listener is.
Analysis of Woman’s Constancy
Now thou has loved me one whole day,
Tomorrow when you leav’st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons which we were?
In the first lines of ‘Woman’s Constancy’, the speaker begins with a question. This is only one of a number of questions the speaker poses to the listener. He asks her if now that she loved him “one whole day” what she “wilt…say” when she leaves tomorrow. The next line is a possible answer she might give. It is written in the form of a question again. He is still interrogating her, pressing to know, is this right?
He wonders if she will make some “new…vow” to another man. Or, perhaps, will she say that they are not the same people they used to be. This hints at the possibility that the woman will have finished with the speaker, having known him, and deciding she does not want to keep him.
Or, that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true deaths true marriages untie,
So lovers’ contracts, images of those,
Bind but till sleep, death’s image, them unloose?
In the next set of five lines, the speaker asks two more, longer questions. First, he poses another possible response his lover might give. She could say that the “oaths” they swore when they were deep in “reverential fear” (due to the presence of the God of Love, a likely reference to Cupid) can be given up. Due to the conditions in which they were made.
The next three lines are one long drawn out question. This time he asks if the time they spent sleeping is the same as the years between marriage and divorce. Do the hours they spent between swearing their oaths and waking up the next morning constitute the dissolution of the “contract” between them?
Or, your own end to justify,
For having purposed change and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I could
Dispute and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do,
For by tomorrow, I may think so too.
The next three lines of ‘Woman’s Constancy’ contain the final question. He asks his listener if there is a possibility she’ll turn on him because she hasn’t been “true” to herself. This might be a false statement on her part but it would “justify” her giving him up.
In a clever conclusion, Donne uses the final four lines to remark on whether or not it is actually wise to interrogate his lover this way. He could push back against her “Vain” and insane actions, but he will not. This is not due to any kind of injured pride or broken heart, but because he knows “tomorrow” he might feel the same way.
The desperate tone of the speaker’s monologue is concluded in this way to show the true ups and downs of relationships. Love can in one moment be an overwhelming feeling and in the next fade away, as seems to happen to the speaker from the first line to the seventeenth.