Covid Dreams of Seaside Cliffs

Claude Monet, Cliff Walk

Monday

Now that I’ve received my second Covid shot (I had no reaction whatsoever, incidentally), I’m starting to imagine traveling again, something Julia and I haven’t done in over a year. For instance, we haven’t seen our four grandchildren in Buford, Georgia all that time, even though they are less than four hours away. That’s what makes this Christina Rossetti sonnet the perfect poem for this week.

My English professor son, their father, tweeted it out with the comment, “Rossetti throwing serious quarantine vibes.” Yes, most of us have been in various stages of quarantine for the past year. I suspect that most of us have been, at one time or another, “sick of where I am and where I am not.”

The poem is particularly applicable to those living in Sewanee, which is noted for its heavy fogs. I’m wondering if Rossetti’s fog is mental, however, since something is keeping her from venturing out to picturesque places (cliffs, cresting waves, a pebbly strand) which are “quite within my reach.” Maybe she is locked in a depression. “I am sick of self, and there is nothing new,” she laments.

But something external has reached in and “set me dreaming.” Out of this dreaming comes a beautiful poem.

How fares it, Friends, with you?

From Later Life
17

Something this foggy day, a something which
  Is neither of this fog nor of today,
  Has set me dreaming of the winds that play
Past certain cliffs, along one certain beach,
  And turn the topmost edge of waves to spray:
  Ah pleasant pebbly strand so far away,
So out of reach while quite within my reach,
  As out of reach as India or Cathay!
I am sick of where I am and where I am not,
  I am sick of foresight and of memory,
  I am sick of all I have and all I see,
    I am sick of self, and there is nothing new;
Oh weary impatient patience of my lot!—
    Thus with myself: how fares it, Friends, with you?

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Wounds, Sacred Place of Mutual Compassion

He Qi, The Doubt of St. Thomas

Spiritual Sunday

Some of the best sermons I have heard have been about “Doubting Thomas,” today’s Gospel reading.  I think it’s because we all recognize ourselves in Thomas, who can’t bring himself to believe without seeing physical evidence. I think of an observation that Anne Lemott makes about doubt:

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.

In this poem by Father Chircop, which I encountered on a “Global Christian Worship” website talks about our hunger for tactile certainty. The real gain we get from touching Christ’s wounds, however, is that, in doing so, we touch our own. Wounds become “the sacred place/ of mutual compassion,/ and the springboard to an intimate song/ of communion and possibility,” the poet tells us.

The passage reminds me of a Hemingway passage that I wrote about recently and that Joe Biden cited when remembering the half a million Americans who have died from Covid and honoring those who loved them: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Here’s the poem:

Invitation
By Father Philip Chircop SJ

Stand in our midst
again, today
enter the circle of our fears
penetrate the darkness of our doubts
meet us where we are

May we listen your sung Shalom:
‘Peace be with you … Peace be with you’.
May we see your hands and your side.
May we feel the warmth
of your holy breath
softening the hardened clay
from whence we come.

Invited,
curious like a little child,
we place our trembling hands
not only your wounds
but on ours too,
and on the lovely
brokenness of others

breathing in, forgiveness
breathing out, forgiveness

wounds becoming the sacred place
of mutual compassion,
and the springboard to an intimate song
of communion and possibility
crafted in the heart:
‘our Lord, and our God.’

Previous Doubting Thomas posts
R. S. Thomas: Reach Out Like Thomas in the Darkness
Malcolm Guite: Touching the Wounded God
Denise Levertov: A Vast Unfolding Design Llit by a Risen Sun

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Lit & Nature Light Up Same Parts of Brain

Shen Zhou, Poet on a Mountaintop

Friday

In revising the neuro-criticism chapter of my book Does Literature Makes Us Better People?: A 2500-Year-Old Debate, I came across a New York Times article published nine years ago that somehow I missed. Annie Murphy Paul’s “Your Brain on Fiction” reports on results that I’ve heard about but never seen close up. According to studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines, the brain “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

There are implications here for both poetry and fiction. Poetry first. Here’s one of the reported findings on metaphor:

Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

The same thing apparently happened to the motor cortex when people encountered references to action.

Poetry, of course, makes its home in figurative language. I’m wondering if, since the poems with the most compelling metaphors get us closest to the actual nature of things, whether the brain burns the brightest when it encounters them. (The study didn’t say.) In any event, psychologists now say that, when we read a poem, it’s as though we’re in the actual presence of something that is making us feel or hear or smell or taste or see.

Incidentally, Percy Shelley says something very much along these lines in his Defence of Poetry. Language in its beginnings is barely one step removed from experience:

In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression. 

Fiction is similarly powerful. To quote again from the article,

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

And that’s not all:

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

And:

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

I’ve written posts (for instance, here) on more recent psychological experiments that have verified these findings. In one Theory of Mind study, David Comer and Emanuele Castano had subjects read quality fiction, popular fiction, and non-fiction. There was a noticeable rise in the scores from the quality fiction—meaning that the better the literature, the better readers were able to understand other people.

Or as Paul concludes in her article:

These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel, who have found themselves comparing a plucky young woman to Elizabeth Bennet or a tiresome pedant to Edward Casaubon. Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

But then, you never had any doubts, right?

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Shots That Signal a Promising Future

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton

Thursday

Okay, so I may no longer be young, scrappy and hungry—I’m 69 going on 70—but as I received my second Moderna vaccination shot yesterday (!), I couldn’t help but think of Alexander Hamilton’s shot in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical:

I am not throwin’ away my shot
I am not throwin’ away my shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwin’ away my shot

If Hamilton has been so popular, it’s in part because we long for its revolutionary optimism and wonder if we can ever get back to it. After all, we now live in a country where one party refuses to govern while convincing its voters that the last election was stolen. We watch as even common sense legislation can’t get passed except through an arcane measure called “reconciliation,” and then only some of the time. It’s difficult to believe that we’ll do anything other than continue to fumble along.

Oh for the days when we could dream of a glorious future:

I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
Tryna reach my goal my power of speech, unimpeachable
Only nineteen but my mind is older
These New York City streets get colder, I shoulder
Every burden, every disadvantage
I have learned to manage, I don’t have a gun to brandish
I walk these streets famished
The plan is to fan this spark into a flame
But damn, it’s getting dark, so let me spell out my name
I am the A-L-E-X-A-N-D-E-R we are meant to be

A colony that runs independently…

And:

[B]ut we’ll never be truly free
Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me
You and I
Do or die
Wait ’til I sally in on a stallion
With the first black battalion
Have another shot…

Our (vaccine) shots, however, are at least giving us a fighting chance. The fact that we have vaccines at all–and therefore the possibility of a return to normal–means that we shouldn’t give up on hope altogether.

I approach the future more cautiously than I did when I was young and was participating in protest marches against segregation and the Vietnam War. I allowed myself to feel hope again when Barack Obama won the presidency, and it was just four years ago when I was still taking our democracy somewhat for granted. I feel far more chastened now.

I think of the ending of Great Expectations where two bruised souls, who have been to hell and back, come together possibly to start anew. Estelle can’t imagine a future but Pip, ever the optimist, can. As he famously puts it,

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

I’m Pip at the moment. America has been under assault—I even compared Donald Trump to Miss Havisham at one point—but I believe we can start making our way back to our founding ideals. We haven’t entirely used up our shot.

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Indecipherable Texts of a Magic Spell

Henri Lebasque, Young Boy Reading

Wednesday

The novels of Haruki Murakami are my comfort food. Currently I’ve returned to 1Q84, the novel that first turned me on to the Japanese novelist, and have come across a passage I blogged about five years ago. I’m rerunning that essay today as the passage pretty much sums up the rationale for this blog. Maybe Murakami’s bookishness is what initially hooked me.

The passage involves a math teacher who is also an aspiring novelist. Tengo loves both math and literature, but whereas math helps him escape from life, literature provides him with potential solutions for his problems. As Murakami puts it, a novel for Tengo

was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility.

Here’s the passage:

The world governed by numerical expression was, for him, a legitimate and always safe hiding place. As long as he stayed in that world, he could forget or ignore the rules and burdens forced upon him by the real world.

Where mathematics was a magnificent imaginary building, the world of story as represented by Dickens was like a deep, magical forest for Tengo. When mathematics stretched infinitely upward toward the heavens, the forest spread out beneath his gaze in silence, its dark, sturdy roots stretching deep into the earth. In the forest there were no maps, no numbered doorways.

In elementary and middle school, Tengo was utterly absorbed by the world of mathematics. Its clarity and absolute freedom enthralled him, and he also needed them to survive. Once he entered adolescence, however, he began to feel increasingly that this might not be enough. There was no problem as long as he was visiting the world of math, but whenever he returned to the real world (as return he must), he found himself in the same miserable cage. Nothing had improved. Rather, his shackles felt even heavier. So then, what good was mathematics? Wasn’t it just a temporary means of escape that made his real-life situation even worse?

As his doubts increased, Tengo began deliberately to put some distance between himself and the world of mathematics, and instead the forest of story began to exert a stronger pull on his heart. Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape. As soon as he closed their pages he had to come back to the real world. But at some point Tengo noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not as devastating a blow as returning from the world of mathematics. Why should that have been? After much deep thought, he reached a conclusion. No matter how clear the relationships of things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution. That was how it differed from math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form. Depending on the nature and direction of the problem, a solution could be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell. That possibility would gently warm his heart from within.

Murakami gives us an instance of this narrative magic at work. Tengo grows up not knowing what has happened to his mother. His father, meanwhile, is a man of limited imagination who forces Tengo to accompany him on Sundays when he is collecting fees for Japanese National Television. (Having a child with him makes people more likely to pay up but Tengo hates it.) The boy draws on Oliver Twist to make sense of it all:

My real father must be somewhere else. This was the conclusion that Tengo reached in boyhood. Like the unfortunate children in a Dickens novel, Tengo must have been led by strange circumstances to be raised by this man. Such a possibility was both a nightmare and a great hope. He became obsessed with Dickens after reading Oliver Twist, plowing through every Dickens volume in the library. As he traveled through the world of the stories, he steeped himself in reimagined versions of his own life. The reimaginings (or obsessive fantasies) in his head grew ever longer and more complex. They followed a single pattern, but with infinite variations. In all of them, Tengo would tell himself that this was not the place where he belonged. He had been mistakenly locked in a cage. Someday his real parents, guided by sheer good fortune, would find him. They would rescue him from this cramped and ugly cage and bring him back where he belonged. Then he would have the most beautiful, peaceful, and free Sundays imaginable.

Stories worked this way for me only it was my gender, not my parents, that puzzled me. Because I had more in common with girls than boys, the books that riveted me were those featuring gender ambiguity, like Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Land of Oz, and, when I reached middle school, Twelfth Night. They seemed to offer up solutions, only just beyond my grasp.

Indecipherable texts of a magic spell.

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Fair Mollusk of the Surf and Golden Sand

Tuesday

My family recently found itself riveted by the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher. Like everyone who has seen the film, we gained a new respect for octopuses, leading me to search the internet for poems about the creature.

This Susan Jarvis Bryant poem does a pretty good job of capturing what we saw on film. At one point in the film Craig Foster’s octopus does indeed prove herself a “Houdini of the blue” with a miraculous escape from a shark. “Your skill’s immense” is no exaggeration.

If you subscribe to Netflix but haven’t seen the film, put it on your list.

Ode to an Octopus
By Susan Jarvis Bryant

Shape-shifter of the sea, I’ve come to love
Your strange sophistication; out of place
In liquid labyrinths—your form sings of
Odd creatures from the sphere of outer space.
Yet here among anemones and fish,
An ocean star shines beautiful and bright.
Your flirty skirt of legs skims past a reef
In colors conjured by an inner wish
To hide your blushing pulse of pure delight,
As awestruck eyes look on in disbelief.

Houdini of the blue, you shrink and slink
Through crevices defying common sense.
Contortion and a dirty squirt of ink
Hoodwink eel and shark. Your skill’s immense!
From jiggle-jelly soft to craggy rock,
You morph from smooth to rough with ease and speed,
Invisible to those who crave your taste.
The predators, they circle, and they flock;
Your flesh so sweet, they’re driven by their greed—
A frenzied greed your guise will lay to waste.

Some see you as a gorgon of the waves;
A devil of earth’s salty, surging swell,
A digger of dead sailor’s briny graves,
A slimy siren crooning men to hell,
A Kraken sucking rasping gasps of breath
From lungs that burn for draughts of quenching air.
Once I feared you. Now I understand.
I see a soul, defying threat of death
With triple-hearted grace and wicked flair,
Fair mollusk of the surf and golden sand.

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Should We Cancel This Children’s Classic?

Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1899)

Monday

Today I grapple with a children’s classic that I loved as a child but that I have essentially “canceled”—by which I mean, I do not read it to my grandchildren. Many on the right would accuse me of being “woke” as I grapple with Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, so this essay gives me the opportunity to address their attacks as well as grapple with my own conflicted feelings.

Productive cancel conversations can only occur with people who enter them in good faith, and few of those complaining right-wingers appear interested in good faith. For them, cancel culture is just a stick with which to beat up the left, not to explore ideas. This becomes clear when we see how readily they cancel anyone who doesn’t agree with them, from the Dixie Chicks to San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick to any Republican who does not back Donald Trump 100% (including Mike Pence and Liz Cheney). They aren’t interested in free speech for everyone, just free speech for themselves. The Editorial Board’s John Stoehr lays out the problem in a mantra he shares with his political science students:

“You can’t get anything done when fascists are sitting at the table of democratic politics.” A democratic community can tolerate a vast array of opinions. However, it cannot, and should not, tolerate opinions in which democratic politics is the problem. If it does, then nothing needing to get done gets done—and everyone suffers.

So having established that, here’s the thinking behind my painful decision not to read Little Black Sambo to my grandchildren.

It’s painful because I absolutely loved this story as a child and loved reading it to my own children. The protagonist is an Indian boy, son of Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo, who gets a new outfit, complete with green umbrella and “purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings.” (I don’t have to return to the book since I still have it memorized.) While out proudly walking in his new attire, he is accosted for four successive tigers, each of whom says, “Little Black Sambo, I’m going to eat you up.” In each case, Sambo barters for his freedom with one of his new items. When complications arise—how can a tiger carry an umbrella? what use are two shoes to a four-footed animal?—Sambo ingeniously figures out solutions. (“You can use your tail.” “You can wear them on your ears.”) Following the bargain, each tiger strides off declaring, “Now I’m the grandest tiger in the jungle.”

While his life has been spared, however, Sambo has been stripped of his finery and cries bitterly. Fortunately for him, the four tigers fall to fighting with each other over who is the grandest. Each grabs the tail of another and they whirl around a tree so quickly that they churn themselves into butter (“or ghi, as it is called in India”). Sambo dons the clothes they have cast aside prior to their fight, and Black Jumbo, coming across the ghi, gathers it up. The book concludes with pancakes for dinner:

So [Black Mumbo] got flour and eggs and milk and sugar and butter, and she made a huge big plate of most lovely pancakes. And she fried them in the melted butter which the Tigers had made, and they were just as yellow and brown as little Tigers.

And then they all sat down to supper. And Black Mumbo ate Twenty-seven pancakes, and Black Jumbo ate Fifty-five, but Little Black Sambo ate a Hundred and Sixty-nine, because he was so hungry.

There’s a complicated psychological drama concerning autonomy and identity going on here. The child in new clothes steps out into the world confidently, only to discover that there are forces that will negate this new-found assertiveness. The threat of “eat you up” is heard by children as sending them back as undifferentiated members of the family unit (and of the parents) with no independent self. In each case, however, Sambo problem-solves his way out of difficulty, proving that he is in fact his own person. The story ends in a revenge fantasy where the forces that threatened to negate his individuality themselves become undifferentiated and the prey becomes predator. The pancakes are “just as yellow and brown as little Tigers.”

The book was fun to read to my kids. “Little Black Sambo, I’m going to eat you up,” I would growl to Justin, Darien and Toby, and they would squeal in delighted terror as I hugged them—which is to say, as I symbolically swallowed them up, denying them their autonomy—but in a way that reassured them that all was well. In other words, they experienced their anxiety as a game, one which they knew would conclude with a happy ending.

Freud described the process in Beyond the Pleasure Principle after observing a nephew in a crib playing a “fort-da” (away-here) game with a spool attached to a string. The nephew would throw the spool out of sight while calling out “fort” and then bring it back while saying “da.” Freud interpreted this as him playing out abandonment anxieties, the most primal of all fears. The disappearing spool was his mother leaving, and by turning it into a game, the child was reassuring himself that he was not helpless but had symbolic mastery over this most frightening of events.

Elsewhere Freud says that stories are more complicated versions of this mastering anxiety drama. In his essay “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Freud writes that, when we grow up, we turn to daydreams, which authors transform into literature:

As people grow up, then, they cease to play, and they seem to give up the yield of pleasure which they gained from playing. But whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure when he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate. In the same way, the growing child, when he stops playing, gives up nothing but the link with real objects: instead of playing, he now phantasies. He builds castles in the air and creates what are called daydreams. I believe that most people construct phantasies at times in their lives. This is a fact which has long been overlooked and whose importance has therefore not been sufficiently appreciated.

Little Black Sambo is a child’s level fantasy, powerful in that it deals with core identity issues but elementary. We demand more complicated stories when we get older.

So why am I not reading it to my grandchildren. The reasons are mainly cultural.

First, the book recalls the pickaninny image from America’s slave and Jim Crow eras. Second, Sambo too is a diminutive caricature for mixed race people of those times. Finally, the emphasis on the color of Sambo’s skin draws special attention to a colonialist distinction. We see Bannerman, an English woman living in India, focusing on the way Indians differ from her.

My daughter-in-law Candice, who is from Trinidad, told me that she grew up not thinking about skin color because pretty much everyone around her looked like her. Only when she came to the United States did she come to think of herself as a woman of color. It doesn’t matter that Bannerman is not judgmental in her use of the world “Black.” What comes through is her colonialist perspective.

I understand that a 1996 version of the book has authentic Indian names and has been retitled The Story of Little Babaj (his parents now are Mamaji and Papaji). That addresses some of my issues. Yet I can’t get out of my head this English woman marveling at the (from her reserved English perspective) gaudy displays of the colonized (“red shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings!”) Exoticizing the other is still going on.

Or not. I acknowledge this may be a gray area and that I may be overly sensitive. I’m willing to have difficult conversations about the matter. But only with people who are interested in genuine dialogue rather than in wielding ideological cudgels. Only those truly concerned that our children grow up with open minds and a healthy sense of self-respect will I take seriously.

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I, Only I, Must Wander Wearily

Bramantino, The Resurrected Christ (1490)

Spiritual Sunday – Easter

I love this Easter poem by Oscar Wilde, who knows with unerring instinct how to pare away the extraneous from Christianity and bring it back to its roots. In this case, he begins with Vatican Easter pageantry—which itself will be pared down this year due to Covid—but ends with the simple messenger who brought God into the world.

The poem ends with an allusion to Matthrew 8:19-20:

And one of the scribes came to Him and said, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Jesus replied, Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”

In other words, you think you can follow me to pomp and majesty, but my true home is with those who wander wearily, bruising their feet. Do you still want to follow me?

Easter is a joyous day, but it quickly becomes meaningless if we focus on power rather than those who suffer.

Easter Day
By Oscar Wilde

The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.

Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendour and in light the Pope passed home.

My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
‘Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise my feet, and drink wine salt with tears.’

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What a Death to See God Die

Albrecht Altdorfer, Crucifixion (1514)

Good Friday

John Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward” is a good poem for all those Christians who, having jobs to do, cannot give their full attention to the day. In Donne’s case, he is traveling to Wales (“I am carried towards the west”), even though his “soul’s form bends to the East” (toward the Holy Land).

As he does in other poems (“Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” “Sun Rising”), Donne turns to astronomy for key metaphors. Our souls are like spheres—which is to say, perfect in their roundness—but our individual souls  are “subject to foreign motion.” Whether Donne has in mind the gravitational pull of the sun or the ancient world’s music of the spheres isn’t clear, but it doesn’t matter since the metaphor works in both cases. In any event, our individual souls are “whirl’d” by “their first mover,” even though Donne himself is going in a contrary direction.

He says he’s almost glad this is the case, however, because focusing on the crucifixion would overwhelm him:

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?

But though he is turning his back on Christ—literally by traveling west, metaphorically by not opening up his heart fully—yet Christ and Mary “are present yet unto my memory.” Turning his back also suggests that he is inviting Jesus to whip him into shape:

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

Here he repeats an idea found in his famous sonnet “Batter my heart, three-personed God” where he asks God to batter through his resistance since he finds his free will operating against his best interests:

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

If God, by His grace, restores His image to the poet—thereby showing that He knows him—then the poet will turn back again. Unlike the speaker in T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” who laments that he does “not hope to turn again,” Donne assures God that his faith will be renewed. Eliot lived in a more pessimistic age.

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 Gods 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.

Posted in Donne (John), Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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