The evening sun on Maundy Thursday brings thoughts of John Donne and his poem Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward. The poem evokes thoughts of journeying towards an horizon where the sun is low in the spring evening sky. It evokes thoughts of travelling into Devon from here in my native Somerset; through the rich, lush farmlands of the middle of the county. To the south looms the dark, bulk of Dartmoor; continue westward and one will cross the Cornish border and reach the Atlantic coast with its high cliffs and wave swept beaches.
From his London home, Donne could never have travelled more than a fraction of such a distance in a day. How far might one cover on horseback through a countryside of unmade roads? Forty miles on a good day?
It’s hard now to imagine John Donne: the politician, lawyer and poet, who became a priest of the Church of England. Donne’s earthy poetry, delighting in the physical attributes of his lovers, being succeeded by the deep spirituality of poems like Riding Westward.
Perhaps Donne is an embodiment of the qualities of all of us: the earthy and the heavenly. Perhaps it is through earthiness that we are best able to express the heavenly.
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.