Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward


As in so much of Donne’s devotional verse, “Goodfriday” is structured around a “collision of the liturgy with the ego”, as Kirsten Stirling has put it. The speaker expresses guilt about travelling west on the day commemorating Christ’s crucifixion in the east, fulfilling personal obligations when he ought to be performing religious duties. However, awed by his contemplation of the crucifixion he reasons that he is facing the right way, and the direction of travel therefore directly enables the poem’s devotional climax. First, the poem explores the overwhelming nature of the crucifixion vision itself. To witness God’s death on earth would lead to a kind of paradoxical death difficult even to imagine (and Donne rhymes “dye” with “dye” at this point to powerful effect). How could a human being behold hands which could encompass infinity, or comprehend the “endlesse height” of heaven “Humbled below”? Given these visual impossibilities, the back of the head – said by Galen to be the seat of the memory – offers the more appropriate means of contemplation.

more from Daniel Starza Smith at the TLS here.