Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward
by John Donne
When I think about great turns in poetry, the first poem that comes to mind is John Donne’s “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward.” I am as much in awe of this poem’s formal complexity as I am moved by the speaker’s humility, and his urgent desire to turn his life around (literally) and become more holy and Christ-like (“O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee, / Burne off my rusts and my deformity”(40-41)). I am particularly intrigued by Donne’s use of visual shapes in this poem. The poem pivots and advances via the recurring trope of the sphere (though its image realm extends beyond the troposphere, into the galaxy!). In fact, the word “trope” derives from the Greek word for “turning” and “mixing.”
“Goodfriday 1613. Riding Westward” is often categorized as one of Donne’s “Divine Poems.”1 The poem has many formal qualities that point to its affinity with Renaissance emblems, which were a thriving art form (or, some would argue, mode of thinking) in the 17th century. An emblem is a composite visual and verbal text. It has three parts: a motto (often at the top), a picture or icon (centered), and an epigram (underneath or beside the main picture).2 Emblem books were enormously popular in Donne’s time. As Karl Josef Holtgen explains in Aspects of the Emblem, “The emblem helped to shape nearly every form of visual or verbal communication during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”(26). While there are examples of emblem books that were not particularly religious (see footnote 2), in the 17th century emblems were often associated with a devotional practice of meditation; as Holtgen writes, the devotional emblem-makers aimed to convert their readers, appealing to them “to make a personal commitment, meditation being an effort of the whole person, an attempt to grasp the essentials of the faith through the senses, the mind and the will” (52). Noting the popularity of emblem books created by Jesuits and students at the Antwerp Jesuit College in the early 17th century, Holtgen rationalizes the Jesuit affinity for emblems by noting the similarity between the practice of studying emblems and Ignatian meditation.3
Jesuit emblem books greatly influenced Francis Quarles, who compiled what would become a widely popular emblem book, Emblemes, in 1635; in fact, Douglas Bush calls Emblemes “the most popular book of English verse of its century” (qtd in Holtgen 31). It is very likely Donne was familiar with Emblemes, and with the process of using emblems as a starting point for meditation.4 Several scholars analyze Donne’s use of emblems in his work. Holtgen himself writes about the relationship between emblem books and Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and Mary Cole Sloan argues “emblem and meditation […] account for the peculiar kind of sensuosity in Donne’s poetry” (1). In this explication, I am more interested in Donne’s use of emblems as a craft technique, and how this might be a useful model for writing poems.
One of the most extraordinary things about emblems, to me, is the manner in which they were read, which reflects the different relationship of reader to text in the 17th century. Unlike a single verbal text that encourages a linear, progressive reading, the presence of both text and image encourages the viewer to participate in a looping dialectic between the elements. Emblems invite the reader to look, and look again—just as someone might return to a touchstone when meditating. Emblem reading entails perception in parts, what Daniel Russell names a form of “scanning,” which as he argues reflects the greater orality of Renaissance literary culture: “scanning would tend to emphasize particular parts over any unified vision of the whole […] This seeming obsession with parts[…]would tend to privilege paradigmatic [the parts are exchangeable for other parts] relationships over syntagms [a fixed arrangement of parts] and more complicated narrative structures” (84). As Russell suggests, the paradigmatic nature of emblems makes the relationship of parts “extensible through an (infinite?) series of analogical variations on a theme from the common formulary of proverbial lore, ancient maxims and the like” (80). In other words (to put it visually), rather than leading the reader along an arc of events in chronological order, emblems begin with an already familiar proverb, narrative, or maxim, then present the reader with multiple (infinite?) associative options for moving forward, like an ever-expanding web. It is a form of organization that relies on accumulating poetic turns; it is associative and surprising, and offers a kind of lyricism that complicates the chronological narration.
Donne does not name an emblem in association with “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” and I don’t think the poem is meant to be part of an emblem. Still, the poem is emblematic in many ways. Like Quarles’s emblem pictures that place seemingly unrelated objects in the same composition, Donne pulls wildly disparate images together in his poem (at least they seem wild to a 21st century reader). He also enacts an emblematic sort of riddle-making, using submerged tropes. Finally, he uses an emblematic, three-part structure to frame the poem’s central concerns. The poem is a kind of conversion narrative, chronicling the speaker’s desire for transformation, which he describes as a turning towards Christ at the end of the poem.
In “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,” Donne begins with a hypothetical proposal, asking his reader to imagine the soul as a sphere orbiting among and influenced by the “forraigne motion” of other spheres (4). From the very beginning of the poem, Donne asks his readers to imagine abstract concepts using a corresponding visual chart. The description calls to mind the geometric, often-reproduced image of the Ptolemaic cosmos, with its nine concentric rings, and its planets that moved in large orbits and smaller epicycles simultaneously.5 Donne uses the analogy of the spheres to depict a divided self; he separates abstract qualities of selfhood such as the soul, and devotion, and pleasure into a blazon of parts: “Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this/ The intelligence that moves, devotion is” (1-2). In Donne’s poem the soul and the self’s other parts, including the physical body, act independently of each other, and move contrarily: “Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West / This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East” (9-10) This opening section invites the reader into a strange location where the interior self is set on a cosmic scale, and where the interacting objects in the spatial field move in opposite directions, and are “hurried” and “whirled” by each other out of synchronous alignment.
Donne proceeds from the described grid of spheres, themselves signs of spinning, to set up a series of rapid turns. Because his speaker faces west, he can only see what happens in the east by way of his imagination (or more specifically, by activating his memory, as he says in line 34, which suggests a very different, spatial concept in the 17th century).6 Lines 11-33 of the poem, then, are a rapid-fire catalog of images governed by the speaker’s repeated “looking,” a practice enabled by the conditional tense, by which he disclaims the actual seeing, but validates the power of seeing with the mind’s-eye via the power of his vivid description: “There I should see a Sunne, by rising set [….] Could I behold those hands which span the Poles […] Could I behold that endlesse height”(11,21,23, emphasis mine). Each time the speaker looks, he sees an isolated part of the Passion scene: the Sun (11), Christ on the Crosse (13), Christ’s face (17), Christ’s hands (21), Christ’s blood (25), Christ’s flesh (27), Mary (30). I would argue that each of these “lookings” constitutes a turn, as each introduces an additional image that Donne’s speaker describes for a full sentence before the sentence ends and he “looks” again. This paratactic cataloging suggests the possibility for an infinite (paradigmatic) extension, and contributes a sense of prodigious scale.
The cumulative effect of such frequent turns in this central section sets the reader’s mind spinning! So does the way Donne shifts scale between close observation and cosmic vistas. In fact, from the opening of the poem, the speaker adopts a god-height perspective, watching spheres move through their orbits, and seeing panoramic images of the Sun, the earth’s Poles, and the “endless height” of the universe. At the same time, he is able to observe particulars such as Christ’s face, hands, and flesh. By shifting between scales, Donne reinforces an argument that God is simultaneously localized, in Christ’s body, and infinite: “Could I behold those hands which span the Poles, / And tune all spheares at once, peirc’d with those holes?”(23-24). In this case, though we see the close-up specifics of Christ’s pierced hands, Christ is also God with the capacity to hold the entire universe. Like cinematic jumpcuts, Donne’s looking and re-looking (each glance corresponding to a sentence in the poem) facilitates these shifts in scale. If these various images need not be read as a syntagmatic composition, there is even the possibility for the various scales to exist simultaneously, and since the looking and re-looking at the same scene from the past also flummoxes the progress of time, various chronologies (1613, and the date of Christ’s actual crucifixion) can also exist simultaneously.
True to the way emblems include, as Russell notes, “common formulary of proverbial lore, ancient maxims and the like” (80), much of Donne’s poem seems to build on the reader’s familiarity with maps of the universe and iconic reproductions of the Passion (Christ on the cross, Mary attending him). In a sense, because his readers know these forms well, Donne is able to divide them and speak of them in parts without disorienting his reader. Donne doesn’t describe the scene in a unified way; instead, the unification happens outside the poem—the fragmented image is shored up in the stored cultural capital in his reader’s brain. Furthermore, the catalog of images, by sheer accumulation, gains momentum as it proceeds, and launches the transcendent final movement of the poem (lines 33-42).
In terms of the voltage, if the catalog effect of rapid turns is the ampere in this poem, the wattage is another form of turn: the submerged emblem. Daly defines this concept in terms of Holtgen’s reading of Donne’s Holy Sonnets (in which Holtgen recognizes telltale imagery from emblem books), and John Doebler’s reading of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, which Doebler argues engages with the emblem of a compass: “In the case of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, the compass emblems were submerged beneath the surface of words, and their discovery provided a better reading of the whole poem” (Daly 124). Part of the delight of meditating on emblems, I imagine, was the insight that came from finding connections between the disparate parts—like the pleasure of making analogies, or even the pleasure of solving a riddle. I would argue that Donne actually enacts this aspect of the emblem by using a submerged emblem. Just as a reader of emblems studies the text until the connections clarify, I believe there is a hidden logic to Donne’s images that, once discovered, gives an extra element of delight, and that is the recurring shape of the sphere. Donne declares the trope openly in the first line of the poem: “Let mans Soule be a Spheare,” and in the poem, he also names the planetary spheres, and makes reference to the idea of “the music of the spheres”: “Could I behold those hands which span the Poles, / And tune all spheares at once, peirc’d with those holes”(21-22). As Donne proceeds through the poem, however, the sphere is not so much stated as understated—that is, even when it isn’t named it seems to inform his choice of images (so that it becomes a kind of visual punning), and it also governs the rhetorical argument of the poem, which is all about the notion of “turning.”
It could be true that for a 17th century reader, Donne’s puns were not hidden at all, and that such a reader would have a repertoire of common cultural images, like the iconic crucifixion scene, on instant recall when reading Donne’s work. It is also true that since I am a 21st century reader, I might miss or misread the significance of the references entirely. Still, if the spirit of emblematic reading prevails, I could list the wild number of spherical associations Donne’s images bring to mind: how the reference to Mary, who “furnish’d thus / Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us” (32), might subtly allude to her (spherical) egg, or to her womb (in fact, this association is clearer in Donne’s poem “The Crosse”); how the reference to memory calls to mind the spherical, mnemonic charts of Giordano Bruno; and how the final reference to “corrections” could suggest a cat o’nine tails (or at least its precursor), a whip whose nine knotted tails parallel the nine spheres of the Ptolemaic cosmos, the which God could correct from its “forraigne motion” to the order of merciful Mercury.
If the associations above seem far-fetched, there is one submerged image I would make a strong case for, and that is a mirror. Several years ago, I did a research project on 17th century glass technology that changed my relationship to “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward.” In the 17th century, it was very difficult to create clear, flat glass, let alone flat glass strong enough to withstand a backing of molten lead (lead was used to create the reflective quality). More often, mirrors were convex, like the ones depicted in in Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524). As I’ve been noting in this post, Donne is preoccupied with images of seeing and looking in this poem (he uses the word “see” four times in the poem, “wink” once, “behold” twice, “looke” three times, and “eye” itself twice—one could even argue the eyeball itself befits the submerged emblem of spheres). My first clue that Donne is referring to glass in this poem came from line sixteen, which includes the word “spectacle.” As seems clear from the context, Donne’s use of this word puns on two meanings: both on the exhibitive nature of the crucifixion, which would be too weighty to observe in the emotional sense, and actual spectacles, whose lenses would have been semi-spherical (the word for lenses derives from lentil, because lenses resembled the curved shape of lentils), and much heavier than today’s high-tech lenses! This more overt reference to glass sets up the charged reference in the final four lines:
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. (39-42)
The quality of glass in 17th century England would have been such that there would likely have been flaws in the mirror glass, or rusts on the surface, and of course the convex shape would give its viewer a distorted reflection (cloudy coloring could also distort the reflection). The word “burnish” could also refer to a polishing remedy for an older form of mirrors made of shiny metals. In these lines, Donne has not only compared himself to a sphere, as he suggests in the opening lines, but he asks that as a sphere, he become the mirror of Christ. This partially explains the harshness when Donne’s speaker asks for “corrections,” since Donne would become Christ-like by enduring the torture Christ endured. Here Donne, who has compared himself to a system of spheres in the first ten lines, then does a kind of visual punning asking to be transformed from self-as-planet to self-as-mirror.
So far in this analysis, I have focused on the poem’s epicycles more than its larger orbits. In fact, the most emphatic turns in the poem are narrative markers, the only lines where Donne situates himself in “actual” time and space. After the introductory analogy between soul and sphere, Donne transitions by detailing his location, a move that sets up the central dilemma of the poem: “Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West / This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East” (9-10). Donne proceeds to imagine what is happening in the east (the list of lookings I discussed above). After this list, another transition moment occurs: “Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye / They’are yet present unto my memory” (33-34). After this transition, the poem moves from the meditation to a more direct supplication to God, as if the meditation enabled the supplication.
The speaker’s final turning is previewed at sentence level, with countless chiasmatic turns-of-phrase (“Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye; / What a death were it then to see God dye?”(17-18)), and the poem itself is about the speaker’s desire to turn or transform, which he localizes in the action of turning his head: “Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace, / That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face” (42-43). The speaker’s desire to change sets the poem in motion, but in the end the transformation doesn’t actually happen—the resolution is conditional upon God’s agreement to administer (harsh) corrections, and if it happens it will happen after the poem. This quasi-resolution keeps the action in motion, and because of this lack of finality, the speaker’s longing continues to spin, even four centuries later.
Like most emblems, then, this poem has a tri-part structure, which is also appropriate for a Christian meditation on a triune God. The poem is emblem-like in the way that each part is discrete, yet is in dialogue with the other parts—each part’s function is also a close, but not exact, replica of the corresponding motto, icon, and epigram.
At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned how much I appreciate this poem as a reader. I also learn a great deal from this poem as a writer, when I consider Donne’s craft. For one, he has thrown down the gauntlet of complexity in the way he inscribes the subject of turning and motion at the level of syntax, music,7 and visual imagery. As a poet interested in ekphrasis, I also take away the value of writing about well-known images and icons and how such shared cultural capital (if there is such a thing in a postmodern world) is ripe for sampling and deconstructing. While I cannot prove this, I also like the idea that Donne engages with several visual and verbal sources at once, and that what looks like leaping is actually logical. Finally, the most peculiar technique is how Donne builds the poem by returning to a visual touchstone, and I am interested in how one might use a principle of “looking and looking again” to expand the poem, and help it conduct the bright spark of association along infinite currents of connectivity.
1 There are several poems like “Goodfriday 1613. Riding Westward” in Donne’s oeuvre, each concerning the crucifixion, each using similar formal constraints. Two that seem particularly similar are “The Crosse,” and “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling Upon One Day. 1608.” The second of these examples convinces me that Donne composed these poems annually on Good Friday, as it begins “Tamely, fraile body’, abstaine to day; to day/ My soule eats twice, Christ hither and away” (1-2). I like to think these poems were a kind of ritual that helped Donne honor the day. Like “Riding Westward,” “The Crosse” and “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion” also have shape-tropes. In “The Crosse” the shape is the cross, and in “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion,” the shape is the circle: “[The Virgin Mary] sees [Christ] man, so like God made in this, / That of them both a circle embleme is” (3-4).
2 One of the most famous emblematists was Andrea Alciati, a Milanese lawyer who created a widely distributed book of emblems around 1531, and who “was the first to call the units making up his book ‘emblems’”(Holtgen 24). The third emblem in his book bears the motto Nunquam Procrastinandum (Never Procrastinate). The central image depicts a square woodcut of a jaunty elk standing in the foreground; distant white spires and city structures frame the elk in the background. The elk holds up its foreleg, which is wrapped with a white ribbon of text reading “never postpone anything.” Underneath the picture, Alciati interprets the picture for his reader with a six line epigram that references Alexander the Great’s and quotes his response to those who wonder how he accomplishes so much: “By never being willing to delay.” Alciati then uses this quote to interpret the image of the elk: “and that is the meaning of the elk, / for you might wonder if it is stronger, or swifter.” Alciati invited readers to contemplate the links between the three discrete parts of the emblem—for Renaissance readers, this process of reading emblems was probably meant to be both entertaining and edifying. You can read Alciati’s book, with helpful English translations, at this website: http://www.mun.ca/alciato/test1.html
3 Whereas Ignation meditation begins with the “compositio loci” or “a visual scene drawn from memory of imagination,” the emblem offers a picture for a focal point. Where Ignation meditation proceeds to “analysis” of the compositio loci, and “examination of theological meaning,” the devotional emblem offers “a long explanatory poem,” and/or “prose quotations from Church fathers.” Where Ignation meditation resolves in the “colloquium,” or “resolution of the will,” the emblemist offers the “final epigram of four lines, conclusion, affirmation, or resolution” (Holtgen 49). In a devotional meditation, the work of finding associative connections between each part of the emblem, might imply a desire to analyze the “book of nature” for evidence of an omnipresent God manifest in the world’s order and design. As Peter Daly writes: “Notions of universal ideas, the image of the great chain of being, and Nature regarded as God’s Second Book are but different articulations of a sense of underlying order; and where that order was crumbling for whatever reason, emblems often function as re-affirmations of the desired, if threatened, order” (52). Indeed, Russell sees the emblems as evidence that in the early modern era, people’s relationship to nature was changing:
Renaissance men and women were already reading the lessons of the Book of Nature less automatically and less well than people had done in earlier times. Representation was beginning to supplant symbolization as a function of the image in Renaissance society; the ways of science were beginning to replace the Book of Nature. Hence, images now needed to be framed and explained in order for them to function as images from the Book of Nature (88)
Donne is a prime example of this phenomenon because, as many critics have noted, he incorporates contemporary scientific concepts in his work.
4 Unlike some forms of emblem, Quarles adopted the Jesuit Herman Hugo’s practice substituting a devotional poem for the epigram. To my mind, “Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward” resembles one of these emblem devotional poems in its form and tone.
5 In an animated map on Youtube, you can observe how the system corrected for its earth-centric anomalies by assigning planets epicycles (smaller orbits they completed while propelled along their larger orbits) which meant they could sometimes appear to move in reverse of their expected course.
6 In fact, the visual aspect of emblems were probably meant to function as mnemonic tools.
7 In her article ““Soul, Sphere, and Structure in ‘Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward,’” Sibyl Lutz Severance does an impressive explication of Donne’s poem for its numerological significance, which points to even deeper submersions of the sphere emblem. She finds that the poem is structured in nine parts: “A structure of nine parts within one circle continues to inform when it suggests spheres—the nine ordered spheres of the universe[…] 8,2,4,6,2,6,4,2,8: the nine-part structure reveals the disparate natures of man and God reconciled in harmony”(27, 36). Furthermore, she notes that the divisions numerologically conform to “the Pythagorean proportions representing the music of the spheres”(28). In fact, the poem refers to celestial music (“And tune all spheares at once”) in line 22, the harmonious midpoint of the poem: “the central figure, twenty-two, gives another attribute of God—his fullness. The number, the total letters in the Hebrew alphabet, represents completeness and was used as a composition number in the Old Testament for works stressing that quality”(35).
Katy Didden holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. Her first manuscript of poems won the 2012 Lena Miles Wever Todd prize sponsored by Pleiades Journal, and will be publishd by Pleiades Press in April 2013. Individual poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals such as Ecotone, Bat City Review, The Kenyon Review, Smartish Pace, and Poetry. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at St. Louis University.