Today’s poem is what inspired this whole countdown idea in the first place. It’s a favorite that I revisit each year, and it will take a little more work from you as readers than some of the other poems have. But I promise it’s worth it. Do yourself a Good Friday favor and dive in.
Okay. You ready? A little intro.
Intro to the poet
The poem is “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward” by John Donne. Donne was born 1572 and died 1631. He was born into a very Catholic family: his mother’s side was related to Sir Thomas More, and his uncle led the Jesuit mission in England. Of course, England wasn’t very friendly to Catholics at this time (it was not entirely unusual for Catholics to be imprisoned, beheaded, hanged, drawn and quartered, etc.), so Donne had to be politically savvy navigating his religion and his nationality. Eventually he converted to the Church of England and was appointed to powerful church positions such as Royal Chaplain and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Many of his sermons survive and are still studied.
As a poet, Donne is famous for the unexpected and vivid images he conjures as well as his simultaneous piety and eroticism. For example, in “Sonnet X” of his Holy Sonnets, Donne asks God to batter and ravish him as part of his devotion. He writes a love poem fantasizing about his beloved’s inside the flea that bit her. He’s intense and ingenious.
Intro to the poem
It’s very possible that”Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward” is autobiographical. As Daniel Starza Smith writes in a Times Literary Supplement article (which I also recommend), “it is certainly suggestive that this 42-line poem, conceived as Donne entered his 42nd year, was written at exactly the time Donne made his decision to take orders, in spring 1613.” The first 12 lines of this poem are perhaps the most syntactically challenging. Enjoy them and use the footnotes in the linked version to help you. The poem draws on two primary images in addition to the images of the crucifixion:
1. Riding westward, Donne is moving away from Christ in the East and has his back to Jesus. It’s a position of waywardness, perhaps even rebellion, Donne refigures it through the course of the poem.
2. Rising and falling/east to west/circular motion.
Options for reading
I’m posting the text of the poem here below without any additional commentary. If you’d like to read a version with modernized spelling, more glosses, explanations, and footnotes, I’ve typed one up that’s linked here: Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward by Donne. I’ve tried to make this poem more accessible by putting in several footnotes of explanation and glosses for potentially confusing words to the side of the text. The notation can be slightly heavy-handed; in a couple of places I flat-out give you an overt interpretation instead of following a “less is more” philosophy. If you’ll be bothered by that, just read the posted version (get ready for seventeenth-century spelling and punctuation!). But if you are feeling confused, the notes are there to be helpful.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the poem in the comments. Thanks for reading, and a blessed Good Friday to you east, west, or wherever you may be.
Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward
by John Donne
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.