Friday, 5 April 2013

An Easter poem written 400 years ago this week

The Crucifixion … a modern image by Peter Ball in Saint Stephen’s Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Last Sunday morning [31 March 2013], while I was blogging from Lichfield, I remarked that in the calendar of the Church of England 31 March recalls the life and work of John Donne, one of England’s most celebrated poets. However, I said, because Easter Day fell on 31 March few people were likely to give much thought to John Donne this morning.

But I am reminded too that this year [2013] also marks the 400th anniversary of John Donne (1573-1631) writing his poem Good Friday 1613: Travelling Westwards.

John Donne wrote that poem in a letter to his friend, Sir Henry Goodere of Polesworth Hall, a patron of the arts and leader of the Polesworth Group of poets. Polesworth Hall, a short distance east of Tamworth, was originally Polesworth Abbey, founded by Saint Editha, who gave her name to the parish church in Tamworth. Polesworth Hall, which has been Polesworth Vicarage since the 1930s, is just 18 km (12 miles) from Lichfield, although today the parish is in the Diocese of Birmingham.

In 1613, Good Friday fell on 2 April, and on Tuesday last, 2 April 2013, a workshop exploring Polesworth’s rich cultural heritage of modern-day poets and writers was held at Polesworth Abbey 400 years after John Donne wrote Good Friday 1613: Travelling Westwards.

It was an afternoon and evening of reading, writing, and walking in the company of John Donne’s poetry, with a full programme of workshops, talks, walks and discussions, including reading and discussion with Anthony Mellors and Tony Howe, a guided tour with Mal Dewhirst, and a Donne-inspired poetry workshop with Gregory Leadbetter. In the evening, there was a performance of John Donne’s work by Derek Littlewood, and newly commissioned poetry by Jane Commane, Mal Dewhirst, Jacqui Rowe, and Gregory Leadbetter.

The Vicar of Polesworth, Father Philip Wells, said: “We are very excited to be celebrating this 400th anniversary with a series of talks and giving people a chance to reflect on Donne’s poem in the wider context of the Abbey site and the Christian faith which inspired it.”

TS Eliot was deeply disparaging when it came to John Donne: “About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive; and impure motives lend their aid to a facile success. He is a little of the religious spellbinder, the Reverend Billy Sunday of his time, the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy. We emphasize this aspect to the point of the grotesque. Donne had a trained mind; but without belittling the intensity or the profundity of his experience, we can suggest that this experience was not perfectly controlled, and that he lacked spiritual discipline.”

But John Donne’s poem Good Friday 1613 is about a profound experience and has no shadow of “impure motive” hanging over it, for it was not written for publication, and so it offers a very personal look at the meaning of Christ’s death for him and for the restoration of the whole universe.

On his journey westward over that weekend 400 years ago, John Donne realised the general aberration of nature that prompts us to put pleasure before our devotion to Christ. We ought to be heading east at Easter so as to contemplate and share Christ’s suffering; and recalling up that event in his mind’s eye, he recognises the paradox of the ignominious death of God upon a Cross:

Could I behold those hands, which span the poles,
And turn all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

I was surprised to see so many searches on this blog over the past two weeks for this poem by John Donne, which I had selected as one of my ‘Poems for Lent’ last year. And so, to mark that 400th anniversary earlier this week, I have decided to post this poem once again.

Peter Ball’s cross in the north aisle of Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, is made from a simple wooden sleeper, the Crucified Christ from copper and bronze foil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This 42-line poem, written almost 400 years ago, is regarded as one of the finest devotional poems of the English renaissance period. WH Auden provides testimony to how hard a time his students had in interpreting poems like ‘Good Friday, 1613,’ when he writes:

And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne

This poem was written two years before John Donne’s ordination in 1615, and following Good Friday, 2 April 1613, when he made a journey on horseback from London westwards to Exeter. Donne’s brief title for the poem serves alone to reveal his shame and guilt at being on the road, instead of in church, on that particular Good Friday 400 years ago. The poem contains profound religious insights and a sincere expression of personal penance. The poem has a slightly jogging rhythm – a slightly irregular tetrameter, punctuated by largely end-stopped rhyming couplets. This intentional rhythm intentionally mimics the pace of the horse that Donne rode that day.

This poem is significant for what it tells us about the theology of a major English poet and for what it tells us about the spiritual psychology of that time. In 21 couplets, Donne writes an apologia for the faithless act on Good Friday that this poem recalls.

The poet gives five arguments, firstly blaming fallen Nature generally (lines 1-14). His riding, he says, follows the influence of the stars, which (from any observer’s perspective) move uniformly across the sky every night from east to west, from where Christ the Son of God took on humanity, from where he died on the cross at Golgotha.

Secondly, citing the Bible, Donne explains that looking on God, face-to-face, is death to any creature (line 15-28). He averts his eyes because he dares not look.

Thirdly, out of pity, Donne says he cannot bear to witness the sufferings of Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary sufferings (lines 29-32).

Fourthly, he affirms that he observes the sufferings of Christ and Mary in his mind’s eye, in “memory” (33-35), as he should.

Finally, he explains that, by turning his back on Christ, he also submits himself to deserved “Corrections” (lines 35-40), to a scourging.

The poem’s final couplet then moves all responsibility to a God who, if he punished Donne as he should, would discover that he, unashamed, willingly turning his face to his creator.

Donne begins with a metaphor “Let man’s soul be a sphere” (line 1). He likens the soul to a “heavenly” sphere – a moon or a planet – and the “intelligence” that moves this planet (line 2) is the soul’s devotion to God.

The poet compares the devotion of the human soul to the force of gravity on a planet moving around the sun. The gravity of the larger body keeps the planets in orbit; therefore the devotion of humans to God keeps them on the right path. But, like planets in orbit, we can be distracted by things other than their devotion, and those distractions will lead them away from God:

And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own.
(lines 3-4).

On Good Friday, while the poet is travelling to the west, his thoughts are in the east, towards Jerusalem, where Christ died. He is travelling when he ought to be praying, and so the west-east dichotomy is both literal and metaphorical.

Donne, who was fond of paradoxes, contrasts how he is looking towards where the sun sets, but Christ, by rising from the dead, made life eternal (lines 12-13).

He finishes this metaphor by averring that sin would have “benighted” all humanity had not Christ died for our redemption (line 14). After this, however, Donne is more concerned in the remainder of the poem more with the idea of looking toward.

In lines 15-24, he says he is glad that he did not have to look on Christ’s death on a cross because he could not have borne it. Donne shows how hard it must have been for anyone to have witnessed the Crucifixion, for Christ is God, and as he recalls in line 17, in the Exodus story God warns Moses that no-one could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33: 20). But the poet knows that in Christ God was clothed in “flesh” and therefore could have been seen safely by people in his own lifetime (line 27).

The poet is deeply impressed with spiritual anguish at imagining the Saviour on the cross.

In line 21, he alludes to the prophecy of Zechariah: “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12: 10).

In the Fourth Gospel, Christ’s crucifixion is seen as fulfilling this prophecy: “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out ... These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled ... And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’.” (John19: 34-37).

Near the end of the poem, he is thankful that he could not have seen the horrors of the crucifixion: “Though these things, as I ride be from mine eye.” He reflects that these things are in his memory, and through that he can look towards God, and God can look towards him (line 33).

This final idea of “looking” is very important to Donne, for he ends the poem by saying that

I turn my back to thee, but to receive

He turns his back to God to be whipped and “corrected” of his faults (lines 37-38). He implores God to “Burn off my rusts, and my deformity” so that he can be made more in the likeness of Christ (line 40). Only when he is cleansed and corrected in this way may he then “turn his face” to God (line 42).

Good Friday ... a detail from the Herkenrode Windows in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral, before and after restoration (Photograph: Vidimus)

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, by John Donne

Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ 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 whirl’d 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, ragg’d 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 ransom’d 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 mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin.

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