It is four hundred years old today, yet John Donne’s Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward still has an evocative power. For me, it evokes thoughts of journeying towards an horizon where the sun is low in the spring evening sky. It evokes thoughts of travelling into Devon from my native Somerset; through the rich, lush farmlands of the middle of the county. To the south looms the dark, bulk of Dartmoor; continue westward and one will cross the Cornish border and reach the Atlantic coast with its high cliffs and wave swept beaches.
From his London home, Donne could never have travelled more than a fraction of such a distance in a day. How far might one cover on horseback through a countryside of unmade roads? Forty miles on a good day?
It’s hard now to imagine John Donne: the politician, lawyer and poet, who became a priest of the Church of England. Donne’s earthy poetry, delighting in the physical attributes of his lovers, being succeeded by the deep spirituality of poems like Riding Westward.
Perhaps Donne is an embodiment of the qualities of all of us: the earthy and the heavenly. Perhaps it is through earthiness that we are best able to express the heavenly.
Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirled by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees God’s face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragged and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransomed us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.