Poet's Pick April 16
John Donne: "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward"
Selected by Joseph Campana
National Poetry Month 2013

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Joseph Campana's Poetry Month Pick, April 16, 2013

"Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward"
by John Donne (1572–1631)

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I'almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc'd with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish'd thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd 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 mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.

 

* Joseph Campana Comments:
Tides turn and people face us. It's easy to imagine facing greater powers (our maker, the music) just as it's easy to anticipate, with dread, some final turn of the screw. Turning and facing: are these emotional or ethical tendencies, physical gestures, or might they be properties of poems?

Many sonnets famously turn at the volta before ringing to conclusion. And in an essay in Green Thoughts, Green Shades, Peter Sacks finds, in the sonnet tradition, a veritable gallery of faces. I won't here be talking about sonnets, though I will say a thing or two about John Donne. In all likelihood his most quoted poem—at least by poets—is that sonnet of perhaps unmatched fervor—"Batter my heart"—which in the end cries out for a violent ravishment by divinity. For many this is the battle cry of poetic passion, the "break, blow, burn" of a poem hitting the mind like a emphatic fist might strike the chest in some great barbaric yawp of emphasis.

My interest in Donne is certainly in the emphatic physicality of his poetry. In fact, I'd say Donne is a poet for whom there is a certain kinetics at work. Donne is a poet who turns and faces. At times this means he is a poet that turns away so as not to face—a muse, a lover, divinity. At other times he turns, returns, and revolves, surveying the poetic universe that shadows and provides shape to the physical cosmos. After all, the term for a range of literary devices, trope, also means to turn or to direct or to change.

"Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward" is that quintessential poem of Donne's primal kinetic gesture, of turning and facing. Already the title places us in time and space and motion all at once. At first, however, it may seem more abstract that that, beginning with an initial premise: "Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this, / The intelligence that moves, devotion is." It seems initially a poem of mind, but already the rhythm driving forward begins to move the body, and suddenly this perfect sphere, like the other concentric spheres that make up the cosmos, begin to feel heavier as "by being growne / Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne."

For Donne, the great terror and hope of mortal existence is its decay. It terrifies with the specter of death but holds out the hope of the life beyond, which only can be reached by following the body's natural course of death and decay in the hope of a new heaven and new earth. Of course it isn't just Donne's body: everything's falling apart. As he puts it in the First Anniversary, as so many have quoted: "All coherence gone."

Yet the center is not wholly lost. There is still a point by which the devoted soul might orient himself as Donne discovers as he rides: 

            Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West
            This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
            There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
            And by that setting endlesse day beget;
            But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
            Sinne had eternally benighted all.
   
The punished flesh of Christ orients Donne, as if wherever it is imagined to be it is the magnetic pole around which the planet wobbles. Even in the wake of Reformation and even for a poet like Donne who struggled personally and professionally with his religious identity, this suffering body mattered. A reader need be neither Christian nor religious in any way to understand the pull of the poem. There are plenty things in this wide world too terrifying or weighty to contemplate. We are all tempted to turn away. We're tempted, in a word, not to face certain spectacles or experiences or ideas or sometimes other people. They are simply too much to bear.

Devilish as Donne is in his erotic poems, here he is stalwart if horrified. He admits how much he prefers riding west when the rising Easter sun would put him face to face with a suffering divinity:

                Yet dare I'almost be glad, I do not see
                That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
                Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
                What a death were it then to see God dye?

For a phrase as dense and potent as "that spectacle of too much weight for mee" many poets might donate a limb or two. How about these lines:

                Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
                And tune all spheares at once peirc'd with those holes?

The terrifying wounds, which had been so comforting to Medieval Christians for so many centuries are part of a brave new world. The planet has gotten larger—new objects in the heaven, new continents in the so-called west. And yet here is Christ spinning the globe as if on an invisible rod that extends through his wounds. This is a poem of vivid imagination. The images are not fantasies that come at random or reconfigure the world in some gauzy dream-state. The mind exists for the sake of memory, for the calling to recollection iconic spectacles. As for the poet? The poet renders the spectacles of too much weight painfully and unforgettably vivid. This is the task and calling: the core vocation.

But Donne doesn't every let us forget that he is riding away from this scene of world-breaking anguish. As he rides away and as he imagines the iconic Christ, the icon looks back: "and thou look'st towards mee, / O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree." And so there's a reason to turn away and not face divinity: out of respect, for fear of destruction, or to play the part of the school-boy waiting to be punished: "I turne my backe to thee, but to receive / Corrections."

This John Donne is hopeful in spite of the agony and the fear. His hope lies in punishment. If he is "worth thine anger," then perhaps there is way of being seared by life so as to "Burne off my rusts, and my deformity." Then, Donne would be recognizable: "Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace, / That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face." Donne can imagine turning back when he is once again pure and sure his love will be reciprocated.

Reciprocity: isn't that the most painful, the most elusive, the most powerful part of love? Can we love without the idea of it? What if our love is not returned and what if the stakes are higher than in ordinary matters of love or sex? Terrifying, but also hopeful. Such potent love sets us in motion. Like Donne, we turn and face or turn away. In the hope of love, we turn, return, revolve.


About Joseph Campana:
Joseph Campana’s Natural Selections (University of Iowa Press, 2012) was a winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. He teaches Renaissance literature at Rice University. His poems have appeared in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, and many other venues. His first book of poetry, The Book of Faces, was published in 2005. He is also author of The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity.


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