Twenty years ago I bought a little book published by SPCK , Praying with the English Poets. I bought it because I had very little money and it was for sale at a reduced price – maybe only 20 pence. Whatever the exact cost, there are individual poems that I discovered through reading that book that are worth to me many, many times what I paid for it.
John Donne’s Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward caught my eye because riding westward for me in my young days would have been heading to home and security in a West Country village, away from the tribulations of London.
As Donne heads west on Good Friday, 2nd April 1613, his soul is carried eastwards to the profound realities of Calvary.
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 motions, lose their owne,
And being, by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesses 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 footstools 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 appare’l, 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.