A Short Analysis of John Donne’s ‘Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward’

On Donne’s Good Friday poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

As Good Friday approaches, we thought we’d share this Good Friday poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631), and offer a few brief notes towards an analysis of this poem, written in rhyming couplets, which sees Donne meditating on the spiritual aspects of Easter and the Crucifixion.

Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

Donne may be travelling westward in this Easter poem (he was riding from Warwickshire to Wales), but the day of his journey – Good Friday – reminds him of the East, and the place where Jesus Christ was sacrificed on a Good Friday long ago. The title of Donne’s poem, ‘Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward’ not only gives us the exact date of the setting of the poem, but also tells us what Donne is doing, and this is important because it hints at one of the most important themes of the poem: the fact that Donne is having to get on with day-to-day business on an important religious festival – perhaps the most important Christian festival in Donne’s time, and more venerated than Christmas – when he would rather be contemplating the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the Cross:

Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.

Donne begins his poem with a typical metaphysical conceit: the human soul is made visual and physical by being pictured as a sphere, not unlike the earth, in space, surrounded by other spheres. Whether Donne had recent Copernician theories about the arrangement of the solar system in mind when he wrote ‘Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward’ is difficult to say, or whether the arrangement of the spheres belongs to an older, Ptolemaic and geocentric understanding of the universe. But Donne’s metaphor of the soul as a sphere immediately renders the abstract and spiritual as physical, one of many planets in space. And just as these planets are not free to move where they will, but must instead obey the laws of the universe and move in sync with each other, so Donne, like everyone, must carry on with his daily life, his individual will less important than that of others. His body is travelling west but his soul and thoughts turn to the east:

There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;

An ‘endlesse day’ because the Crucifixion and Resurrection atoned for all human sins, past and future: Jesus died, as Christian teaching has it, so that others might live.

Indeed, the most substantial middle part of ‘Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward’ is a meditation on this event, which Donne is at once sorry and glad he does not have time to think about too much as he rides: sorry because it is an important sacrifice that deserves witness, but glad because it would overwhelm him.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

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