‘Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’ by John Donne was composed in 1613 on Good Friday while Donne travelled to Wales. It was on this journey that Donne decided to enter into the church. It was turning point in the poet’s life. He would go not become Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, an extreme change for a writer whose work is more often than not associated with erotic imagery.
The poem is made up of forty-two lines which are contained within a single stanza of text. It follows a consistent rhyme scheme of aabbccdd, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. The lines are not structured with one specific pattern of meter although a number of them are in iambic pentameter. This means that the lines contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed.
Summary of Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward
‘Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’ by John Donne describes a speaker’s spiritual transformation and fear of confronting God on Good Friday.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the human soul exists within one sphere and the physical world another. He states that most people spend all their time in the latter. This poem is the moment when the speaker, and the poet himself, decides to turn to the spiritual side of life.
In the following lines he imagines what it would be like to observe the crucifixion and admits to himself that he doesn’t have the strength to do so. This is a source of shame for the speaker who wants to become close to God, still he is unable to even face the image in his head. By the end of the poem he asks God to punish him for his weakness and therefore grant him the strength to look at death.
Analysis of 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.
In the first set of lines the speaker begins by describing the human soul and the exterior world. The former is like a “Spheare” within one’s body. It contains all the spiritual intelligence that is most important to live a good life. This world is the one in which the speaker believes a reader should live.
There are other spheres though, specifically that which contains physical pleasures or that values “businesse” over goodness. This is the rest of creation the place where the majority of the world resides. Most people do not “obey” their “naturall forme,” that which exists within the “Soule.” As becomes clear in the next set of lines, the speaker is dealing with the pull between these two different worlds.
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.
In the next set of lines the speaker describes how he is going “West” but is bending “toward the East.” The east is a reference to the Holy Land and the spirituality he is realizing is the most important to him. This realization mirrors Donne’s own religious awakening that occurred around the same time period.
Initially the speaker regrets the fact that he is facing the wrong way. But then after considering what looking upon “Christ on the Crosse” would be like, he is “almost…glad” that he doesn’t have to see the sight. It would be too much for him. Donne describes the sight of Christ, and the impact it would have on his mind and soul as “too much weight.” He is ready to change his life, but not to take on every burden at once.
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?
In addition to the previous lines in which Donne’s speaker expresses his relief at not having to look at Christ on the crosse, there is God’s face to consider. Exodus 33:20 in the Bible states that one cannot look upon the face of God and live.
In the following lines the speaker wonders over the burden of looking at Christ on the cross. Rather than facing his own death by looking at God, he would have to face God’s death through Christ.
He explains the impact of this death on the world and how one would have to reconcile God’s creation with the sight of “those hands which span the Poles…pierc’d with those holes.” Looking upon such a sight seems like an impossibility to him.
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?
In the next set of lines the speaker expands on the anguish one would feel upon seeing Christ crucified. The number of lines dedicated to this emotion speaks to his overwhelmed mind and soul. He does not know if it would ever be possible for him to bear the burden of the sight. The speaker goes through the different parts of God, from the reach of his power to the physical “flesh” which was “woren” and made “rag’d and torne” during his death.
The speaker knows his limitations and expects that his inability to look at the sight on the cross would lead him to look at Christ’s “miserable mother.” It is to Mary Magdalen the speaker might turn. From here he would take in the emotion of “Gods partner.” She helped to “furnish…/ Halfe of that Sacrifice” which is responsible for human salvation.
Lines 33- 42
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.
In the final lines the speaker recognizes the fact that even though he did not see the crucifixion, the images are in his mind. They exist in a different kind of memory. He speaks directly to God and tells of how the “Savior” is looking towards him at the same time he is looking towards his future with God.
The speaker continues on, mourning the fact that he metaphorically did not have the courage to look Christ in the face “upon the tree.” He asks God to punish him for his offence and allow him to atone for his sins. This will increase the strength of his soul and he’ll be able to “turne” his face.