‘Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward’*

*poem by John Donne.

Image: (Wikipedia): “Epiphany Church (Богоявленская церковь) which is seated near the bank of the Kotorosl. This church, with its five domes, and traditional Russian sacral architecture, is a classic example of a medieval Russian church…one of the most noticeable examples of 17th-century architecture in the city of Yaroslavl. In addition to this, the fresco-work inside the church was carried out by local artists during the building of the church, and has remained, almost unchanged, to this day.”

Dr Oliver Tearle writes at interestingliterature.com:

“…Donne may be travelling westward in this Easter poem (he was riding from Warwickshire to Wales), but the day of his journey – Good Friday – reminds him of the East, and the place where Jesus Christ was sacrificed on a Good Friday long ago. The title of Donne’s poem, ‘Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward’ not only gives us the exact date of the setting of the poem, but also tells us what Donne is doing, and this is important because it hints at one of the most important themes of the poem: the fact that Donne is having to get on with day-to-day business on an important religious festival – perhaps the most important Christian festival in Donne’s time, and more venerated than Christmas – when he would rather be contemplating the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the Cross:

Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West

This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.

Donne begins his poem with a typical metaphysical conceit: the human soul is made visual and physical by being pictured as a sphere, not unlike the earth, in space, surrounded by other spheres. Whether Donne had recent Copernican theories about the arrangement of the solar system in mind when he wrote ‘Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward’ is difficult to say, or whether the arrangement of the spheres belongs to an older, Ptolemaic and geocentric understanding of the universe. But Donne’s metaphor of the soul as a sphere immediately renders the abstract and spiritual as physical, one of many planets in space. And just as these planets are not free to move where they will, but must instead obey the laws of the universe and move in sync with each other, so Donne, like everyone, must carry on with his daily life, his individual will less important than that of others. His body is travelling west but his soul and thoughts turn to the east:

There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,

And by that setting endlesse day beget;

An ‘endlesse day’ because the Crucifixion and Resurrection atoned for all human sins, past and future: Jesus died, as Christian teaching has it, so that others might live.

Indeed, the most substantial middle part of ‘Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward’ is a meditation on this event, which Donne is at once sorry and glad he does not have time to think about too much as he rides: sorry because it is an important sacrifice that deserves witness, but glad because it would overwhelm him.”

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