Two central motifs which shape John Donne’s Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward make the poem challenging for contemporary readers: cosmology and liturgy. To some degree, they are a single motif, as the poem seems to argue.
The poem, a meditation on the Crucifixion and the narrator’s spiritual condition, is set in the context of the motion of the spheres (the planets and stars) and in that of the liturgical calendar.
On the solemnity of Good Friday, the day which commemorates Christ’s death, Donne (or the narrator) is riding Westward. He is not facing east (the rising of the sun), the traditional direction of Jerusalem, but busy with the world and its concerns.
There are many forms of piety, but tending to the cares of the world on Good Friday can hardly be a very high one. The narrator is one who has, if not forgotten, then turned his back upon his Lord.
God would indeed be all but forgotten for all such men, for all of us, if we could not, in a certain respect, look in two directions at once. By grace and the constitution of human nature, we can indeed do this. We can move in one direction, even as we glance in another.
This is where the primary conceit (imagery) of the poem becomes important. Cosmological imagery is introduced in the first line by way of conceiving the the soul as itself a sphere like unto those other heavenly orbs. The spheres are the planets or wanders of the sky.
A sphere is also something which turns and can actually move in two directions at once. The top part of a wheel can move downward while the bottom can move upward. Further, that which moves in a circle ultimately returns to its original position. An orbit eternally retraces its path.
The soul is thus likened to the spheres of heaven. But unlike the spheres who in traditional cosmology are moved by Angelic Intelligences, the human soul is itself intelligent, capable of self-moving.
Like the planets, which retrograde (or turn back in their motion), so too does the soul or the person wander. As the planet is perturbed in its motion by proximity to other bodies, so also is the soul, in its commune with the world, take on ‘foreign motion’ and loose its proper direction. It substitutes the pleasures and cares of the world for a care for God–its only true First Mover.
But unlike the heavenly spheres whose wanderings are simply part of a more complex liturgy of times and seasons, man’s retrogradations are a fall. The planets return to their courses, but man through sin has no promise of return and may forever wander (or, as in the poem, ride westward).
Yet, the poem reveals how the rhythms of grace are yet present to man.
Redemptive possibility remains, in part, because man is not simply another wandering sphere among the planets. He is the intelligence that moves. The soul is that sphere which comprehends all others by means of intellect and will, by means of memory, consciousness, worship, and prayer.
To move in this case is both to know, but also to desire…to be moved. And man can be moved not only by that which is without, but also by that which is within.
But what is within man? It is not only sin and the appetites of flesh. In this man, the speaker, there is the recollection of his Savior. Thus even as he is carried in one direction by sin, by guilt, by indifference, his Soul’s form yet bends back to the East.
How does the soul do this? In part, the soul is capable of such bending because of memory. Memory, that gift of God lives in him yet. It is, after all, by means of memory and a power of imagination that the Crucifixion stands before the speaker, even as he is turned in a different way.
This is one of the graces of human nature, one of the entry ways of grace–that we may carry in us a love, an image, a tale which may yet be brought to mind (though long neglected).
(This should be encouragement to parents, preachers, and teachers whose words may not always be wasted as they seem.)
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare (Luke 15)
But it is not by man operating on his own impulses that all this happens.
The story of the Cross is brought to consciousness not just by the compunction of the narrator or his inner piety, but by the providence of times and seasons, both natural and sacred. Good Friday serves as a means of grace, even to one who rides westward.
Thus the One whom the narrator will not countenance is met in memory. The One whom he flees, yet speaks to him in the contemplation of the story remembered–the very purpose of Good Friday.
The poem is thus not just a play upon cosmology or anthropology; it is a meditation on the power and soteriological significance of liturgy which binds together the whole. The cosmos is a liturgical cosmos, man a liturgical being, capable of being moved and reminded by the seasons, of turning and returning. And all this is grace upon grace.
In this manner, the poem is a reflection upon repentance or metanoia (the turning of the inner man to God) and the means which God uses to accomplish this.
This metanoia leads to a new turning at the end, in which Donne or the Speaker offers himself up to God that he might be chastised and cleansed. In this remarkable expression of piety, he begs the Father to form his image in him–to perfect his repentance.
He prays for this chastisement so that all this turning may be made perfect, so that when he turns finally and everlastingly to face his savior, (whom no man can look upon and live), he will meet God with God’s very image formed in him (Donne). Thus he may indeed meet Him face to face.
The last turning of his back at the end of the poem is thus entering more deeply, not only into a cosmic liturgy and into personal piety, but into a liturgy which has existed since the beginning. In which God proceeds from God: God from God, light from Light, very God from very God.
In this manner, Donne concludes the Good Friday reflection on sin in a spirit of contrition, one marked by hope. Such hope, fervent and certain, fearful and full of love, remains yet chaste and faithful to the spirit of the of the the day.