At least once a year, I feel the need to immerse myself in John Donne’s poem “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward.” I’ve turned to it in times of pain and uncertainty; also in moments of joy. It might be my favorite poem in English. Somehow it has felt more urgent recently. I wanted to share a meditation on it.
The swirling of thought (“the intelligence that moves”) within the spherical human skull reminds Donne of the swirling gases in a planet’s atmosphere. In both cases, the very containment of the energy – the mere fact of coherence, in planet or psyche – is mysterious, even wondrous.
I don’t approach this poem as a practicing Christian, but Donne’s fervent religiosity does seem to demand a reading in the context of 17th-century Christian (specifically Anglican) theology.
The thrust of this essay is that “Good Friday…” achieves a one-of-a-kind inversion of the space-time continuum about three-quarters of the way through. Donne folds time back onto itself like a goddamn burrito; it’s miraculous. To provide the necessary background, what follows is a line-by-line close reading, starting from the top.
Let mans Soule be a Spheare…
Donne opens with a deft rhetorical flourish: let’s say man’s soul is a sphere. It’s a disarming invitation, in spite of the schoolmasterish construction. Just trust me, he seems to say. My soul feels like its own world; I’m guessing yours does too.
…and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is
The swirling of thought (“the intelligence that moves”) within the spherical human skull reminds Donne of the swirling gases in a planet’s atmosphere. In both cases, the very containment of the energy – the mere fact of coherence, in planet or psyche – is mysterious, even wondrous. This circling around an unseen center seems the image of “devotion”: thought itself, a substance so fine it’s generally considered immaterial, is somehow contained in a physical space. The very possibility of this seems evidence of the binding power of love, faith, devotion.
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.
Just as “the other Spheares” – planets, moons – may come under the sway of another, stronger planet, and so lose the innocence of their “natural” orbit (around the one true Sun), so can the human soul mistakenly treat secondary influences as its “first mover,” its lord and master. Donne slyly equates “pleasure” and “business,” treating the two as equally frivolous, equally secondary in relation to man’s ultimate duty to God. We mortals might consider our “business” – our means of making a living, our reputation among our peers, etc. – to be of greater importance than “pleasure,” but in God’s eyes the two are equally insignificant, and the difference between them, if there is any, is evidently not worth articulating.
Already Donne has established the poem’s basic analogy: the human soul is a tiny planet, susceptible to malignant influence from other astral bodies. But there is one Sun whose influence it ought to obey absolutely:
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;
We know from the poem’s title that “This day” is Good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The “hence” tells us that Donne is headed westward for purposes of “pleasure or businesse” – some inessential human activity whose superfluity irks him as he rides. He “[is] carryed,” passively, a kind of puny asteroid that’s happened upon some planet’s gravitational field, and he’s painfully aware of his own weakness. He knows that his soul’s “natural form,” the course it yearns to follow, is to turn around and look eastward – at the rising sun, the image of God’s magnificence. Donne puns on “Sunne” and “son”: the risen “Sunne” is also the risen Son, whose earthly life came to an end (“set”) by being forced up onto the cross (“by rising set,” emphasis mine) – and whose death (“that setting”) begat the “endless day” of God’s glory, whose radiance Donne feels on his back, its warmth growing in him like a guilty blush.
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
To me these lines have the ring of a remembered rhyme, like a Sunday-school lesson the speaker murmurs to himself as he rides. Note the pun on “benighted” – that is, sin would have doomed the universe to an endless night – and the quieter resonance of “Sinne” in contrast to “Sunne.”
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Donne tells us that he knows the unimaginable effulgence of Christ’s resurrection was essential for the workings of the universe – but, he admits, he is guiltily relieved that he did not witness the event firsthand. Donne’s ambiguity about witnessing this ur-catastrophe is linked to his impulse to stare into the overwhelming radiance of the sun, another “spectacle of too much weight for mee.” He has identified two contradictory tendencies within himself: his soul’s longing to turn eastward and behold the blazing source of all light, and his all-too-human relief that his face is turned away. The former impulse – a desire for transcendence – is aligned with his soul’s “natural form” (the spirit’s inclination to strive upwards, toward God); the latter, an impulse towards self-protection and distraction, reflects the baser, weaker tendencies of the flesh.
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?
Donne reflects that even to see “God’s face” would be fatal: to stare straight into the sun would blind him. How much more overwhelming, then, would it have been to witness God’s death, through the execution of Jesus, His surrogate? Donne imagines a kind of universal atomic blast: the nails in Jesus’s hands puncture the fabric of the cosmos.
It is in the next few lines, already visionary in its revelation of a deep psychic fissure, takes an unprecedented turn. (Note: the word “from,” in the first line of the following excerpt, means “away from.”)
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;
Donne first makes what seems a relatively unremarkable observation: though these events (Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary’s grief) are not literally visible to him on his journey, he can behold their images in his memory. That – the faculty of memory, which he implicitly conflates with the poetic faculty of imagination – looks towards the events of Good Friday; that is, the eye of memory looks backwards, back across the centuries, back towards the source of spiritual life. This backwards gaze, which witnesses the unbearable, is precisely what his physical eye cannot do: he can’t stare into the sun. As he becomes aware that memory is enacting the confrontation he cannot perform in life, he has a shock: just as he gazes back through history at Jesus, so is Jesus gazing forward through history at him. “[memory] looks towards [the Crucifixion]; and thou look’st towards mee” (emphasis mine). The double use of the present tense is astonishing. Through memory’s creative force, Donne is looking backwards through time; the Savior is staring into the future. Donne treats time as space; history itself is a kind of vast field across which his gaze may meet Jesus’s. The temporal vectors of memory and prophecy are imagined spatially, as two rays (in the mathematical sense) that meet, and the whole temporal complex is conceived as an interaction, indeed a relationship.
This awareness precipitates a still-deeper crisis:
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
Suddenly conscious that his Savior witnesses – is witnessing, has always witnessed – his every move, Donne hastily explains himself. He tries to account for his back being turned to Jesus, for his decision to “ride westward.” Rather like a lover making an excuse for negligent behavior (as usual, there is a subtle kinship between Donne’s religious and erotic poems), he insists that he has only turned his back to Jesus in order to “receive / Corrections.” That is, his back is turned so that he may be whipped.
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.
Among Donne’s many anxieties is the fear that perhaps Jesus does not care much about him, one way or another. Donne knows he is a sinner – why, then, is he not being punished? He’s riding through rural England, it’s morning, it’s probably very quiet, and he’s had a revelation so potent that it seems the ground under his feet should open and swallow him up…but nothing happens.
Painfully, what Donne begs of his Lord is precisely the flaying that Jesus underwent during the Crucifixion, the disfiguring that Donne felt sure he could not bear even to watch. Throughout the poem, Donne has equated corporeality – human eyesight, for instance – with weakness, and now he asks to be stripped of everything that stands in the way of his visionary engagement with Jesus (“my rusts, and my deformity”). He longs to reify the poetic vision he had just experienced, when his memory (that is, his poetic imagination) met Jesus’s gaze. He wants both to sustain that breathtaking clarity (into eternity) and to make it physical.
In short, he asks the impossible: he begs Jesus to “burne off” his (Donne’s) mortal “apparell,” yet he hopes also to be strong enough to face the Sun/Son. The future-tense conclusion (“I’ll turn my face,” if and only if he is made perfect) tells us that Donne does not manage to extricate himself from this bind, at least not on the morning of Good Friday, 1613. What he managed instead was this poem.