Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward

by John Donne

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward Summary

Synopsis

This 42-line poem was composed on Good Friday during John Donne’s journey from Warwickshire westward into Wales. The poem contains profound religious insights and a sincere expression of personal penance. Its slightly jogging rhythm (a slightly irregular tetrameter, punctuated by largely end-stopped rhyming couplets) perhaps mimics the gait of the horse Donne rode that day. But any poetic effect like this takes a subordinate role to the intricacies of the poet's religious logic and his own understanding of himself in relation to the Divine.

Donne begins with a metaphor “Let man’s soul be a sphere” (1). He is likening the soul to a “heavenly” sphere—a planet, a moon, or other such body—and the “intelligence” which moves the planet is the soul’s devotion to God. The speaker compares the devotion of a human soul to the force of gravity on a planet rotating around the sun. The gravity of the larger body keeps the planets in orbit; therefore the devotion of human beings to God keeps them on the right path. But, like planets in orbit, human beings can be distracted by things other than their devotion, and those distractions will lead them away from God. “And as the other spheres, by being grown/Subject to foreign motions, lose their own” (3-4). The poet continues the trope by showing how, on this Good Friday, his thoughts are in the east (towards Jerusalem, where Jesus died, or perhaps toward the eastern sky from which God will come on Judgment Day) while he is made to travel to the west. He is travelling when he should be praying. The west-east dichotomy is therefore both literal and metaphorical.

Donne, ever fond of paradoxes, then contrasts how he is looking toward where the sun sets, but Jesus, by rising from the dead, made life eternal (12-13). He finishes this metaphor by averring that sin would have “benighted” all humanity had not Christ died for its redemption (14). After this, however, Donne leaves the cosmological metaphors mostly behind, and the remainder of the poem is concerned more with the idea of looking toward or away from God.

In lines 15-24, Donne exclaims that he is glad he did not have to look on Jesus’ death on a cross (a fitting meditation for a Christian on Good Friday) because he could not have borne it. Donne uses his Scriptural knowledge to show how hard it must have been for anyone to have witnessed it, for Jesus was God, and the book of the Bible Exodus says whoever looks on the face of God must die. But the poet is merely making intellectual connections here; he knows that Jesus was clothed in “flesh” and therefore could have been seen safely by people in his own lifetime (27). But the speaker is deeply impressed with spiritual anguish at imagining the Savior on the cross.

Near the end of the poem, the speaker is thankful that he could not have seen the horrors of the crucifixion: “Though these things, as I ride be from mine eye.”  He reflects that they are in his memory, and through that he can look toward God, and God can look toward him (33). This final idea of “looking” is very important to Donne, for he ends the poem by saying that “I turn my back to thee, but to receive/Corrections,” saying that he turns his back to God to be whipped and “corrected” of his faults (37-38). The speaker implores God to “Burn off my rusts, and my deformity”  so that he can be made more in Christ’s likeness (40). Only when he is thus cleansed and corrected may the then “turn his face” to God (42).

Ed. Scott Locklear