Imagery and symbolism in Good Friday, 1613

The spheres

There are some fairly technical images in the poem that need to be clearly understood. The first image is that of the spheres and intelligences in ll.1-8. It is basically drawn from medieval astronomy and was quite a favourite one of Donne. He uses versions of it in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning; The Extasie and Aire and Angels. In the medieval system, the spheres (planets) as they circled the earth were guided or directed by ‘intelligences', a sort of divine force. So if his soul is a planet, the guiding principle for it is devotion. Unfortunately, interference is possible. This was the explanation medieval astronomers had to come up with to explain apparent deviations from circular motion. So, for his soul, interferences are also possible. Here, they are ‘Pleasure or businesse'. In fact, so powerful are they that they now seem to be his soul's ‘first mover' or primum mobile. This was the over-ruling moving principle for the whole universe.

The whole world in his hands

This cosmic image is taken up again in the picture of the cosmic Christ holding the whole universe in his hands. Because, in the medieval system, all the spheres moved in circles, there was a common axis. The ‘poles' being held by Christ are not only the earth's poles, but the poles of the axis that runs right through the universe. The additional picture of Christ's hands being pierced, as if by the axis itself, gives theological tension to the image.


There is some personification, unusual for Donne, which depicts Nature as God's lieutenant and the sun winking. The image of the earth being God's footstool is more obviously biblical (Acts 7:49), quoting Isaiah 66:1.


Donne presents his sins as rust and deformity which need to be forcefully removed. In another striking image, he takes the idea that God clothed himself in human flesh to enter this world through Christ's incarnation and powerfully describes that clothing of flesh as ‘ragg'd and torn' as a result of Christ's suffering before, and on, the cross.

More on the Incarnation

Investigating Good Friday, 1613
  • Look at the imagery Donne uses in Good Friday, 1613
    • Can you apply the idea of the microcosm to the opening imagery?
    • What is the symbolism of the inner journey that Donne is making?
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