Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward : by John Donne

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Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

Let man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey:
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirled by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west
This day, when my soul's form bends toward the east.
There I should see a sun, by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget;
But that Christ on this Cross, did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I' almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who secs God's face, that is self life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made his own lieutenant Nature shrink,
It made his footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands which span the poles,
And turn all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height which is
Zenith to us, and to our antipodes.
Humbled below us ? or that blood which is
The seat of all our souls, if not of his,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was wom,
By God, for his' apparel, ragged, and torn ?
If on these thing I durst not look, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was God's partner here, and furnished thus
Half of the sacrifice, which ransomed 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 me,
O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree,
I turn my back to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O think me worth thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know me, and I'll turn my face.

Let man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this, The intelligence that moves, devotion is, And as the other spheres, by being grown Subject to foreign motions, lose their own, And being by others hurried every day, Scarce in a year their natural form obey: Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit For their first mover, and are whirled by it. Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west This day, when my soul's form bends toward the east.
Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

Critical Analysis

      Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward poem of John Donne was written two years before the ordination of the poet in the Anglican Church. He is conscious of his sinful life; he wishes that Christ should forcibly snatch him away from sin then he would repent for his sins and be worthy of divine grace. This is a personal poem containing the poet's meditations on sin, death and redemption. The poet's heart is torn by inner conflict due to an external life of business and pleasure and of yearning for religious devotion. There is a realization of the boredom and blankness of the life of the senses and at the end, a feeling of disgust and repentance. Donne wishes to undergo all the punishment for his sins so that he may deserve the mercy of God. Then he will be able to face Christ with joy:

"Restore Thine Image, so much, by Thy grace.
That Thou mays't know me, and I'll turn my face": The poem may be regarded as a prelude to his inner conversion turning away from a sinful life to a life of piety and devotion.

Development of Thought:

      The poem was written by the poet as he was riding Westward on Good Friday. As he rides, his thoughts turn to the significance of Good Friday and Christ's sacrifice. Donne compares his soul to a sphere and the intelligence or the attendant angel to devotion. According to medieval cosmology, "he spheres were a set of invisible spherical orbits in which moved the planets, each with its attendant angel or intelligence. Primus Mobile (the first mover) was an outer sphere which gave motion to all the others. In this case the primus mobile is pleasure or business" The poet believes that on a holy day like Good Friday, his Soul should be travelling to the east where Christ died, but in fact he is riding westward - for his business - turning his back on dead Christ. The human soul instead of practising devotion to God turns to worldly pleasure or business. Like a sphere, which under external influences moves from the east to the west, he also has drifted to the west, away from God.

      The poet's soul wanted to go eastward, but on account of worldly influences he is riding towards the west. If he had gone to the east, he would have seen Christ, the Son of God, brightening the land and dispersing the darkness of sin which enveloped the world (mark the pun of the word son/sun).

Scene of Christ on the Cross:

      The scene of Christ's crucification is too painful to see. The poet could never have faced it. It was like the death of God Himself and the man who could see God dying could never survive. Even nature could not bear to witness it. She recoiled in pain and terror. There were cracks in the earth touched by Christ's feet. The sun itself was eclipsed and the world became dark for a moment. The poet could never endure the sight of Christ's hands tied to the poles and then hammered with nails. The entire scene is too painful for human eyes. How could the glory of God be humbled? How could He see the holy blood of Christ mixed with the dust? How could he see the flesh of Christ ragged and bleeding? He could not face the horrible suffering of Mary, the mother of Christ, who by her own sacrifice made a contribution to the saving of humanity.

Punishment for Sin:

      As the poet rides, his mind is full of the images of Christ's crucification. His memory becomes so keen that he can see the 'Saviour hanging on a way-side tree. He thinks that Christ will forgive his sins. But being of the gravity and number of his sins, the poet feels that he must receive due punishment for all his misdeeds. Only after he has faced God's anger and gone through suffering, he will be able to look at the benign face of Christ. He realizes that he does not deserve God's mercy and that he must pay for his sins. Just as Christ suffered for the sins of mankind, the poet must suffer for his own personal sins. This kind of suffering and sacrifice on his part will enable him to see Christ and merit his acceptance and grace. Only when he has been punished adequately, he will turn and face Christ and the latter will recognize and forgive him and accept him.

Critical Remarks:

      The poet refers to the medieval astronomical theory of 'spheres' and their intelligences. Some spheres move in opposite directions on account of the influences of other spheres. The poet has moved from his natural course to the opposite direction on this auspicious day. He should have travelled to the east - the place of Christ. There is a pun on sun / son and Pole. The paradox of Christ - "The sun by rising set and by that setting beget endless day" is quite meaningful: Christ is a symbol of both death and life. Then the incongruity of the poet's turning his back - on Christ is explained by the fact that he is a sinner. As a sinner, he cannot face Christ. Therefore, he must undergo punishment and suffering for spiritual purification. The old sinning self of the poet is destroyed and his real self is restored.

      There is an evolution in the meditation of the poet. The first ten lines pose the problem - the soul's drifting away from devotion; lines 11-32 dwell on the paradox of human perversity - going for pleasure or business and thereby turning the back to Christ the last ten lines show Christ's responding to the prayer of the poet to burn away his trusts' and deformity, so that he may be able to face Christ. All in all, the poem is a faithful reflection of the poet's mind and shows his sincere effort for a spiritual transformation.

Paraphrase:

      Lines 1-9 : Let man's soul be regarded as a sphere. Each sphereis guided by its intelligence on the correct path. Let devotion be the intelligence of the soul's sphere (Man's soul should be guided by devotion to God). As in the case of other spheres (there are nine spheres in all), their movement is deflected from its right path on account of the influence of other spheres and as such are unable to complete their natural orbit within a year, so' in the case of our souls, pleasures of the senses or business or (worldly activity) deflect our souls from the true path of devotion - its intelligence (The poet feels that worldly activities and pleasures make the human soul turn from God to the path of sin).

      Lines 10-14 : This day my soul wants to go to the east but strangely enough I am riding to the west. (My soul is inclined towards devotion while my body intends otherwise). If I had proceeded to the East, I would have met Christ, the Son of God, shining like the sun and removing the darknes of sin which covered the world since his crucification. If Christ had not been raised on the cross, sin would have darkened the world for all time.

      Lines 15-32 : I am glad that I did not watch the scene of crucification of Christ, because I would not have the nerve to see it. One who sees God die, must surely die. Seeing God die would bring a horrible death to the observer. Nature, the creation of God shrank in terror. The ground on which the foot-stool of Christ was placed cracked , the sun darkened for a while (in horror of the crucification). How could I endure the sight of the crucification - Christ's hands tied to the poles and pierced with nails ? Christ's hands, spin the regions from the North Pole to the South Pole and produce gentle music from them as they move in their orbits. How can I behold the glory and the greatness of God which is the mightiest for those who live in the world and for those who live on the other side of it, humbled and reduced to nothing ? How can I bear to see the blood of Christ - blood which is the source of all our life though not of his dripping into dust and getting soiled? I cannot stand the sight of the flesh in which God assumed the form of man (in Christ) and got wounded and bled. If I cannot bear to look on these horrible scenes how can I bear the sight of the terrible suffering of Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ who suffered so much along with her son and by her suffering constituted half of the total sacrifice (the other half being that of Christ) for the redemption of mankind?

      Lines. 33-42 : As I travel towards the west, I cannot see the scene of Christ's crucification but the scene comes to me in my memory. I feel that Christ is looking at me and I am looking at him. I have a vision ot Christ hanging on a road-side tree. Being unable to bear that vision, I turn my back to it. But my inability to face the situation will not save me from the punishment due to me for my sins. I welcome that punishment for improvement. Oh God, you are merciful and you will forgive me after my punishment. Punish me for my faults and show me your mercy after I have undergone the process of purification. Let me look like you by recovering my faults and deficiencies. Then You (God) will recognize me as Your own and I shall be able and worthy to face you.

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