Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Carried West; Bending East.


The incomparable Donne was travelling towards Exeter on Good Friday 1613. What a tortuous journey that must have been?

He was stricken by conscience that he was not in a more sanctified place, nor undertaking what his soul and religious duty demanded. Perhaps to compensate, his mind took to sacred subjects which either then or later, found expression in this timeless poem.

He was heading west so both actually and metaphorically he was 'turning his back' on the East and the geographical location of Christ's crucifixion, commemorated on that very day perhaps one thousand, five hundred and eighty years before.

Donne is writing at a pivotal time for western man's view of Christian belief and of his place in the cosmos, and here Donne alludes to both.

It was written a mere two years after the matter of 'heliocentrism' - that the sun was at the centre of the universe rather than the earth - was investigated by the Roman Inquisition which concluded that it was "foolish and absurd". The theory propounded by Galileo Galilei, subsequently forced to recant on pain of torture and death by the Roman Inquisition.

But it was also almost a century (1517 - note the current anniversary) since Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, that had a profound effect on Christian dogma.

So by the time Donne wrote his poem the Christian man's view of himself and his place in the cosmos was under-going fundamental change, with much wider consequences for the enquiring mind and rational thought.

Donne has his feet firmly placed in traditional theology within the context of the newer cosmology. For him the events of the original 'Good Friday' combine the two, for not only does he believe that Christ's crucifixion and death was the miraculous and divine solution to the human moral condition, the Creator confirmed it with geological, meteorological and astronomical signs and wonders. Thus in that historic moment the physical and spiritual worlds were fused to secure man's salvation from sin and destruction.

With the passage of more than four hundred years, such views may have fallen out of academic favour, but they still resonate powerfully with the human condition, and those twin demons that wrack the human mind, namely guilt and the desire for atonement.

So in literally turning his back on Jerusalem and the remembrance of Christ's sufferings on that momentous day, he admits his own culpability to sin and its consequences and offers up his own for correction, no doubt familiar with the Old Testament words, "For he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

Would that world leaders could do a similar journey west this coming Easter time. They have much to seek repentence and chastisement for, as do we all.

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

Related Poem Content Details

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.

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