We’re usually introduced to Donne’s poetry through the celebrated, conceit-driven early material: his love-elegies; the racier of the Songs and Sonnets (‘The Flea’, ‘The Sun Rising’, and so forth). But for me, I’ve always enjoyed the drama and turmoil we find in much of his religious verse.
The occasion of this poem is autobiographical. Donne had just left his friend John Goodyer’s house at Poleworth in Warwickshire, and instead of heading east towards his home in London, he rode westward towards his friend Sir Edward Herbert’s house at Montgomery Castle in Wales. The poem is a reflection of this journey. It was written after his conversion to Anglicanism but before his ordination as an Anglican priest in 1615. He would, of course, eventually become a celebrated preacher and the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1621).
The speaker of the poem is longing for a kind of ‘Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus’ moment (Acts 9:1-22) – an act of divinely inspired conversion. Growing up Catholic in the newly Protestant England, Donne’s struggles with his faith and desire for belonging are reflected in much of his poetry. By riding westward on Good Friday, the speaker turns his back to the east: to the rising sun, to Jerusalem, to the crucified Christ, to God. The conceits of directional travel, of facing and facing away, and of rising and setting, run throughout.
The poem opens with a meditation on the operation of the heavenly spheres, and how Man’s ‘pleasure or business’ can disrupt his/her natural ‘forme’, becoming the soul’s ‘first mover’. The speaker first contemplates God’s death – a blasphemy. He then moves on to reflect what we might call an ‘affective piety’, that (originally medieval) devotional practice where one contemplates the sensual experience of Christ’s suffering and death as a violent curative. He then asks God to chastise him, to make him whole again, in that typical way that Donne’s poetic voice addresses God personally, often with a series of violent imperatives (compare, for example, the Holy Sonnets ‘Thou Has Made Me’, ‘Batter My Heart’, etc.).
This poem is full of drama. I also thought it a good choice for Good Friday (10th April, 2020). I hope you don’t find my little iMovie reading too silly or too o.t.t., but I had fun making it. Hope you like it. And happy Easter!