On Friday, April 2, 1613, John Donne was, we believe, leaving Polesworth, Warwickshire, after having visited with Sir Henry Goodere, and travelling to Montgomery Castle in Wales, on his way to an Easter visit with Sir Edward Herbert. Donne has become known, to us, as a brilliant preacher, gifted poet, and master of the English language — even a daringly erotic poet in his day.
But at this particular point in his life, in 1613, John Donne was not yet ordained in the Church of England — that wouldn’t happen until two years later. This particular Friday — April 2 — was Good Friday that year. We know or, that is, we suspect we know Donne’s plans for Good Friday that year because of his poem, “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward.” It’s tempting, though not always proper, to project a poem’s words onto the poet, himself. Nevertheless, as Daniel Starza Smith writes in a fine essay, “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. (After overcoming many ‘distractions or diversions’ cast in his path, he was eventually ordained in 1615.) The poem was probably composed on a journey. Following his return he announced his ‘resolution of a new course of life and new profession’ – divinity.”
It’s a lovely poem, and haunting all the same. I share it, here, on this Good Friday — April 19, 2019. I’m taking advantage of this time after our noonday Stations of the Cross and before the 7 o’clock Solemn Collects & Holy Communion. The afternoon rain they’d promised has begun to fall — not only beating down some of the raging pollen but also setting a perfect poetic mood. I’ll paste the full text of the poem, all 42 lines, below, and invite you to reflection, I hope, aided by some summary observations on my part.
- Our patterns and lives are set. We are not, ourselves, the master of our own destiny. The poem begins with lines that sound like they were lifted from a 17th century discussion of Aristotelian physics — we read of “spheares,” “foreign [sic] motions,” and a “first mover.” Like the planets in their courses, my soul is a sphere — a determined shape, with rules that govern it (me). And yet it is round, too, and capable of (as we would say) coming ’round full circle.
- The poet is aware that he’s doing things the wrong way; literally, he’s headed in the wrong direction. He’s travelling westward on a day when Christ was crucified in the east — Jerusalem. Not only that, but his body is moving in one direction whereas his soul, literally the life-force within him, is bending, stretching in the other. “Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West / This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.” (Lines 9-10) This is a perfect description of internal conflict.
- And yet God is in control of the forces of nature, even the elementary forces that play out in in our own life. Just as Easter Day surely follows Good Friday, so too does God bring new life out of everything, including death. Donne may be travelling in the direction of the setting sun, but he is aware that God, in setting (dying being the very point of Good Friday), becomes an eternal rising: “an endlesse day.” “There I should see a Sunne, by rising set, / And by that setting endless day beget;” (Lines 11-12)
- Were it up to us, the poet suggests, were it left to the powers in our own “spheares,” we’d be stuck in eternal darkness. “But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall, / Sinne had eternally benighted us all.” (Lines 13-14)
- Which is why the poet is suddenly “glad.” (line 15) He is glad he’s travelling the wrong direction because he is all too aware of his destructive tendencies. He is all too aware that if it were up to us, we would have crucified Christ and made certain that he stayed dead. Indeed, the whole point of Holy Week and Good Friday, in particular, is that we come to a piercing, internal realization that the Cross is not merely a coincidental prelude to Easter. Good Friday is a startling recognition of the darkness in the world, the deep darkness in us, the very darkness that wanted nothing more than to destroy the Lord of all life. “What a death were it then to see God dye?” (Line 17)
- “Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye, / They’are present yet unto memory,” (lines 33-34) The poet knows how his life, his “spheare” has turned away from God, and yet God has not turned away from him: “For that looks towards them; and thou look’st toward mee / O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;” (Lines 35-36)
- And if all things are spherical, and if God is the Lord of all creation — indeed trampling down death by death, bringing life to those in the tombs — then God has the power, God will bring us ’round full circle, back to our proper selves, back to God. This will burn a bit; after all, we’re being disciplined — “corrected” is the poem’s term. “I turne my backe to thee, but to receive / Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave. / O think mee worth thine anger, punish mee, / Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,” (Lines 37-39)
- Resurrection is not so much a new gift as it is a restoration of the original. We, however, are not able to behold the original until we have been known, again, by God, turned by God back to God. I can’t think of a more profound set of Easter images than the poem’s closing lines: “Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace, / That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.” (Lines 41-42)
Isn’t that the end, I mean the hoped-for goal of life? Who among us doesn’t want to be restored — restored to your very best self? restored to one another? restored to love? Who among us doesn’t wish to be known, once again, by God, as you may have felt you were when you were a little child? Who among us doesn’t want to turn toward life, and turn away from death?
In his essay, Daniel Starza Smith quotes author and professor, Kirsten Starling, who asserts that Donne’s poem is a “collision of the liturgy with the ego.” After a heartfelt journey through Holy Week’s disciplines, I find that I have “collided,” to use that term, into a lot of things I didn’t expect to visit, let alone deal with. The whole Christian season of Lent, beginning with the comprehensive litany of my sins and sinfulness on Ash Wednesday, and culminating in Holy Week and these Three Great Days always, always makes me confront all kinds of things in my heart and life, my mind and relationships. I am left beholding the dignity of my life and God’s blessings. I am also invited to deal with the brokenness and the scars I have carried. A “collision of the liturgy with the ego” is a great way to describe John Donne’s masterful poem but, more importantly, the careful work of the church in setting forth these days, these liturgies, these prayers, these disciplines.
I hope you can find a lot in this poem, but my (not-so-secret) hope is that you will realize, like I have once again, how much you will find in Christ, being turned by Him toward Him once more.
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 growneSubject 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 admitFor their first mover, and are whirld by it.Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the WestThis 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 seeThat 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 isZenith to us, and our Antipodes,Humbled below us? or that blood which isThe seat of all our Soules, if not of his,Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worneBy God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?If on these things I durst not looke, durst IUpon his miserable mother cast mine eye,Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thusHalfe 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 receiveCorrections, 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.