Good Friday 1613 Riding Westward
John Donne was born in London in 1572 into a rich family. He was well educated and had a good job till he married Anne More in 1601. Her father was unhappy about the marriage and made sure that John Donne did not get any decent job. So for many years he struggled to make a living. He had twelve children. In 1614 Donne was ordained as the priest of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1617 his wife died during childbirth and the thirteenth child was still born too. He soon became the royal chaplain. He preached in the court from 1616 till his death. The Kings of the country were very impressed by Donne’s sermons. Donne became the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621 and was the most cherished preacher of the court. He died on March 31st 1631. It is believed that he wrote the poem when he was riding westward from Warwickshire to Montgomery, Wales.
The first few lines is comparing and contrasting human soul to exterior world. The soul is like a sphere and contains spiritual intelligence within the body. The world in which we live have other spheres that contain physical pleasure and business considered more important than values. The world is the rest of the creation. There is a pull between the two worlds and no one really listens to the voice of the soul.
Donne was travelling west but wanted to go east as that was where the Holy Land was. So while west represented spiritualism east was spiritualism and that is what he wanted to become; spiritual. As an afterthought he says he was fine travelling west, for to see Christ on the cross was ever so painful. It was ‘too much weight’ to bear. He was ready to change but not all at once. In the next line he is taking the lines from Exodus 33:20 where God told Moses that no man could see God and be alive. But what really happened was people had to witness the death of God; the nature shrank, the earth cracked and the sun was eclipsed on that day. How could the poet see the spears being pierced into the sides of the Lord? It was indeed too much to bear.
Donne was so overwhelmed by the crucifixion of Christ that so many lines keep talking about his anguish. God who was the zenith of everything is pulled down to physical flesh and even that flesh is tattered and torn at the end. If he does not look at Christ who else can he look at? Upon the mother, Mary Magdalene. Donne calls her God’s partner who shared his sufferings. In the final lines he says that though he did not see the crucifixion, he had those images clear in his memory. The memory that is looking at the Lord and he sees the Lord looking at him. He beseeches the Lord to correct him, punish him, and burn off his faults so that he is becomes pure to face god. He wants to restore the pristine image of the Lord, draw strength for his soul from it and then turn his face.
The poem has 42 lines and the lines are in couplets with iambic pentameter. Some call it a triple sonnet as there 42 lines although there are no stanza breaks. In this poem, Donne is talking about himself but he does not start abruptly, he eases into the poem. However the conceit is seen because he compares the soul to a sphere. It continues later with the imagery of ‘zenith’ and ‘antipodes’. Like the planets that have to follow an orbit, Donne has to follow certain direction (westwards), although he wanted to take another direction (eastwards). There is a allusion to Moses and the declaration of God “Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;” The title of the poem Good Friday 1613 Riding Westward tells about the contents of the poem. Good Friday is the day of crucifixion and there is a lot about it in the lines of the poem. Then the year and that he was travelling westward, indicating that he was travelling further away from God. It is a poem of spiritual transformation and there is a lot of depth in his words.