Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward
Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward
J. D., Poems (London: M. F. for John Marriot, 1633).
Each planet or sphere was thought to hold an angelic intelligence by which it moved in a perfect motion, a circle, in worship of God, but because planetary orbits took an elliptical form, they failed to obey this "natural form." Astronomers tried to save appearances by proposing that the fixed stars (the planets) moved in complicated circular motions as they orbited. Apparent irregularities were explained as eccentric circles within circles. Back to Line
Antipodes: the point directly below the zenith on the other side of the earth. Back to Line
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
Born London in 1572 to a father who died when John was four and a mother who survived until three months before his death, John Donne was educated as a lawyer. This training with words made him an astounding Church of England preacher and a better poet. Donne may have studied at Cambridge before entering Thavies Inn in 1591 and Lincoln's Inn a year later. After joining expeditions to Cadiz and the Azores in 1596-97, he entered the service of Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper. Donne then threw away his promising career as a courtier by marrying Ann More secretly in December 1601, defying the will of her father, Sir George More. Jailed for this marriage the next year, dismissed by Egerton from his service, and excluded from court service, Donne spent most of his next dozen years struggling to support his wife and children. His English poems circulated in manuscript for all his life. One poem, "The Expiration," was published in 1609, and a longer elegy, <i>An Anatomy of the World</i>, in 1611. After briefly serving as member of Parliament for Taunton in 1614, Donne was ordained as a priest at St. Paul's Cathedral and appointed a royal chaplain the next year. He preached at court from 1616 to his death. Faithful Ann died August 15, 1617, in childbed again, this time a stillbirth. Donne became Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in 1621 and England's most cherished court preacher. He died March 31, 1631, and was buried in St Paul's on April 3.
Labelled a "metaphysical" poet for his strange extended comparisons, Donne's poetry spanned his entire life and passions. Everything he did, from sexual libertinism to religious fervour, found expression in his verse. Often Donne portrayed himself in the middle of great opposites, the love of life, and despair that it was prescribed by God as a punishment.
Sometime on April 2, 1613, John Donne was riding from London westward to Exeter, evidently to Sir Edward Harbert in Wales. Early 17th-century England was almost uniformly Christian. The Church of England, led by James I, set aside Good Friday, the day of Christ's crucifixion, to remember its saviour's suffering and death. Christians withdrew from worldly affairs that day, just as they had abstained from meat during the period of Lent, which would end on Easter Sunday, two days later, when Christ's resurrection was commemorated. By taking on human form, and by innocently dying a terrible death on the cross, God's son was believed to have paid for the sins of all mankind and so to have released Adam and Eve, and their offspring through the ages, from God's punishment, which was life itself after expulsion from Eden, lingering into death and eternal damnation in hell. By believing in Christ, his followers obtained salvation. As a sign of their redemption, they partook weekly of the Mass or communion, where the priest fed the faithful with bread and wine, symbolically Christ's flesh and blood, shed on the friday that they, for that reason, called Good. Easter Friday church services poignantly recalled, through readings from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and in the act of communion itself, the agony and purpose of Christ's death. It satisfied God's justice by sacrificing his only begotten son in order to redeem his creation.
Donne's brief title bespeaks, in itself, the poet's shame and guilt for being on the road, instead of in church, on that particular Good Friday. He need not say more. To ride westward, in Donne's times, implied a journey to Tyburn, in London's western suburbs, where thieves and murderers were hanged publicly (OED, adv, 2). Going westward also meant seeking wealth in the new world, the Americas. Traditionally, because the sun set in the west, it was associated with dying. A poem with this title draws attention to itself.
In 21 couplets, Donne writes an apologia for the faithless act his title documents. He gives five arguments, first blaming fallen Nature generally (1-14). His riding, he says, follows the influence of the stars, which (from any observer's perspective) move uniformly across the sky every night from east to west, from where Christ the Son of God took on humanity, from where he died on the cross at Golgotha near Jerusalem. Second, citing the Bible, Donne explains that looking on God, face to face, is death to any creature (15-28). He averts his eyes because he dares not look. Out of pity, third, Donne says he cannot bear to witness Christ's mother Mary's sufferings (29-32). Fourth, Donne affirms that he observes the sufferings of Christ and Mary in his mind's eye, in "memory" (33-35), as he should. Last, he explains that, by turning his back on Christ, he also submits himself to deserved "Corrections" (35-40), to a scourging. The poem's final couplet moves all responsibility to a God who, if he punished Donne as he should, would discover that he, unashamed, willingly turning his face to his creator.
W. H. Auden writes, in his "Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times (Phi Beta Kappa Poem, Harvard, 1946),"
And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne
amusing testimony to how hard a time post-World-War-II students had in interpreting poems like "Good Friday, 1613."
Is Donne being serious in this poem? He evidently accounts himself a lame excuse-giver, a coward, and a masochist, but so cunningly does he argue, translating abstract thoughts into incongruous, complex image clusters, that readers are unsure how to take him. Donne's figures of speech in "Good Friday, 1613," create icons, themselves asking for thought.
They first compare human beings explicitly with entire worlds. Initially, a man's soul is likened to a sphere, one of the nine planets that circle the earth in a Ptolemaic universe. The soul's devotion, what it longs for, is thus the angelic spirit of that sphere, its so-called "intelligence." Because the spheres emulate God's perfection in this old world-view, they ought to take a circular, perfect orbit, but in fact their path is elliptical. Early astronomy explained such theoretically undesirable orbits as resulting from circular orbits within circular orbits, that is, from "eccentric" sub-orbits. These lead the sphere, not only to be tracked in positions inconsistent with the dominant circular orbit, but mean that the sphere seems to move alternately in both easterly and westerly directions (as it traverses the path of one of the sub-orbits within the orbit). Donne alludes to this when he says that, "subject to foreign motion," they do not obey their "natural form" (4, 6). Secondly, God becomes like another sphere, the sun, which has an "endless height" (or elevation above the horizon). Word play and extended comparisons make the "sun" into the "son" (of God), ascending on the cross like the sunrise, and being taken down dead from it like a sunset, and having hands that span the north and south poles as if they were like the crossbeam of a crucifix.Back to Line