Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Analysis of Good Friday. 1613. Riding Westward. By John Donne

John Donne’s poem, “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” offers a meditation upon Easter from the perspective of one who is caught up in worldly affairs when he would rather be taken up with heavenly considerations.
Forty-two lines arranged in 21 rhymed couplets comprise a poem of three major sections: lines 1-14 introduce a metaphor of the soul as a heavenly sphere and Christ as the Sun; lines 15-32 meditate upon the crucifixion of Christ; and lines 33-42 meet the gaze of the narrator with the gaze of Christ from the cross; concluding in a prayer for reconciliation wherein Christ and the narrator commune face to face.
The opening ten lines draw the reader to the heavens and the soul. Comparing the soul to a heavenly body matches microcosmic man and macrocosmic cosmos. However, the narrator elides the idea of musical harmony of the spheres for an image of the cosmos as a frustration of self-motion. Each sphere’s own rotation about its axis competes with the pull of the othes, such that a sphere’s self-motion occurs “scarce in a yeare.” This change highlights the soul’s contemplation of the Cross during Easter, which occurs but once a year, but ought to impel the soul’s motion every day. Instead of heavenly bodies, the pleasures and business of earth draws man’s soul away from contemplating the work of Christ. The narrator’s actual bodily movement West contrasts his soul’s desire to go East, the place from whence Christ shall return.
The meter is predominantly iambic, with a few variations that underscore the interpretation above. The poem begins with spondaic substitution, giving the first three monosyllabic words the prominence of a thesis: “Let mans Soule.” But let mans soul be what? The iamb brings the emphasis upon the metaphoric comparison: a sphere. The caesura after “sphere” allows the reader to pause for the briefest of moments to digest the thesis. The trochaic substitution in line four highlights the contrast between the idea of the soul growing—in conjunction with intelligence and devotion—and subjection to foreign motion. The soul’s motion, like the spheres’s motion, is subject to others than itself. The trochaic substitution in line six parallels line four and develops the idea of subjection—not only does the soul not move of itself, self-motion is “scarce in a yeare” obeyed. A final spondaic substitution in line nine (“Hence is’t”) marks the end of the thesis and offers a sense of finality to the claim.
Despite the thesis of the opening ten lines, the narrator nonetheless finds his soul capable of bending East, and begins a mediation upon Christ that occurs through a seamless transition from the heavenly Sun’s rising metaphorically identified with Christ’s taking up flesh, and the Sun’s setting with Christ’s crucifixion. The cosmological Son’s setting begets night, but the theological Son’s setting begets an “endlesse day.” The metaphor complete, line thirteen begins with pyrhrhic and trochaic substitutions (“But that / Christ on”) before returning to iambic feet. The result is to bring two subsequent crescendos upon “Christ” and the “Cross”. Line fourteen’s trochaic substitution in the first foot draws up the contrast contained in the couplet: Had Christ not been raised upon the Cross to fall into death, “Sinne” would have brought eternal night rather than the endlesse day of line twelve.
Line fifteen begins a new unit. There, a spondaic substitution mirrors the pattern from the first line, and a new thesis emerges. Instead of drawing the narrator’s soul into the cosmic realm, his soul transverses time and beholds the crucifixion. Line seventeen follows a chiastic meter: iambic feet enclose spondaic feet with a pyrrhic central foot. The caesura falls after “face” which allows the pyrrhic hinge to swing smoothly into the trochaic comparative claim: God’s face is “selfe life”. The sweeping rhythm of line sixteen brings the thought into relief in line eighteen as the narrator hammers two trochaic feet into an iambic foot that pauses on the caesura before driving home the emphatic contrast on an iambic to spondaic ending to the line (“to see / God dye”). If beholding God’s face, which encompasses both His own self-contained life as well as the life of all His creatures invites death, how much more a death comes from seeing God die on the cross? The scandalous image leads directly to the cosmic effects that occurred in Christ’s death: the Father’s face turned aside, the earth broken, and the sun darkened. The energy of these cataclysms invites a rising tone and pace; brought to rapid conclusion with a penultimate pyrrhic hinge shutting upon the doubly emphatic spondee (“and the / Sunne winke”).
The poet continues his meditation upon the paradoxes of the Crucifixion in lines twenty-one through twenty-eight. The narrator contemplates the four-fold implications of the cross: Christ’s all encompassing latitude pierced, his all encompassing longitude humbled, his all sustaining inner life-blood made dust; his outer fully-man-flesh torn. Line twenty-two substitutes a spondee in the second foot to emphasize the universality of Christ’s latitude: his hands span “all spheares” and then, after pausing at the caesura, a trochaic fourth foot emphasizes the paradox that these hands were “peirc’d” with holes. The twenty-fifth line appears to use a caesura to split a trochaic substitution in the third foot, pausing on the end of the question of whether the narrator could endure the humiliation of Christ, the height and depth of all created things. A spondaic substitution in the third foot of line twenty-six mirrors the one in line twenty-two: Christ’s hands “tune all spheares” and Christ’s blood seats “all our Soules.” Another parallel occurs in lines twenty-three and twenty-seven. A pyrrhic substitution succeeded by a trochee in the third and fourth feet of line twenty-seven leads into the next interrogative (thus _ _ / on “or that flesh”), which matches the introduction of the interrogative in line twenty-five where the trochaic third foot is split by the caesura and followed by an iambic foot (thus _ _ / on “or that blood”).
The narrator moves from the four-fold consequences of the cross to the mother of Christ in lines twenty-nine through thirty-two. The transition draws emphasis from the spondaic substitution at the end of line twenty-nine and the spondaic substitution split by a caesura in the fourth foot of line thirty (“durst I”. . .“mother//cast”). Lines thirty-one and thirty-two use parallel trochaic substitutions in their first lines, emphasizing the person of Mary (“Who”) and her contribution (“Halfe”). A trochee in the second foot of line thirty-one also brings emphasis upon “God” as the partner.

The last unit begins in line thirty-three with the same spondee and trochee substitution pattern as lines one and fifteen contain; the other unit markers. The entire poem plays with the notion of motion and sight: motion in space and time; and sight in terms of contemplation as well as looking upon. Line thirty-four draws the four-fold divisions of motion and sight together in the faculty of memory, through which the narrator looks upon and may be looked upon by Christ. Line thirty-five emphasizes this double-gaze with a trochaic substitution in the second and third feet (“looks towards/them and”). The caesura breaks up the fourth foot in the line, pausing to allow the spondee in the fourth foot to draw into relief the gaze of Christ reflecting back upon the gaze of the narrator. The gaze of Christ stops the narrator in a spondaic exclamation (“O Sav / iour”) in the first foot of line thirty-six that then rushes through a pyrrhic foot into an iambic, highlighting Christ’s location: hanging on the cross. The enjambment at lines thirty-seven and thirty-eight illustrates the double-nature of shame. The reader sees the narrator turning his back upon Christ and cannot tell until the next line whether his shame results in the blows of condemnation, or, as it turns out, the blows of loving chastisement. The caesura after “Corrections” in line thirty-eight allows a breath of relief before returning to the closing prayer’s plea, visible in the trochaic first foot of line thirty-nine (“O thinke”) as well as in the spondaic substitution in the fourth foot (“thine an/ger”)—the narrator calls upon Christ to care enough to be angry with rather than indifferent to his sins. The emphasis upon the chastisement continues in the spondaic substitution in the first foot of line forty (“Burne off”). The ultimate line draws the prayer to its ultimate hope with a trochaic substitution in the third foot, split by the caesura (“/ may’st know / me//and /)—that Christ would know the narrator in righteousness; that through the love of His correcting anger, his purging fire, the narrator might be known, and so look upon Christ face to face.

Update: I've uploaded a video recitation of the poem that attempts to portray the interpretation offered above.


mushahid hussain said...

Thanks for this I really like this but please let know what is good friday

Joshua Butcher said...

Greetings Mushahid,

Good Friday is the name Christians use to refer to the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified on a Roman cross. Although it seems strange to call "good" there are a couple of reasons why the word is used. Historically, the word "good" meant "holy" or "set apart" and so "Good Friday" meant that Friday set apart as special because it was the day Jesus Christ was crucified for the sins of the world. It is "holy" because of its unique, divinely purposed significance. A more contemporary reason Christians give for calling the day "good" is because the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for His people, though painful for himself, was the salvation of all those who believe. It was a "good death" that brought life to many.