'Good Friday' - Synopsis and commentary


The speaker of Good Friday imagines him/herself standing beneath the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. The speaker reflects that, unlike all the other witnesses to the scene, s/he remains unmoved, like a ‘stone'. However, s/he asks Jesus to look at him/her and break this hard-heartedness.

Investigating Good Friday

  • What aspects of Good Friday can you identify as encouraging, or potentially encouraging?
  • How may a reading of the poem help an individual who is struggling with his or her emotions?
  • What aspects of the poem do you find difficult to grasp?



Rossetti composed Good Friday in 1862 and first published it in a book of Tractarian poetry edited by Orby Shipley in 1864 (for more information on Tractarian poetry see Literary context > Tractarian poetry). This book was called Lyra Messianica: Hymns and Verses on the Life of Christ, Ancient and Modern; with Other Poems. It was among a collection of anthologies which combined ancient Latin devotional hymns and poems with more modern verses.

Following this first publication, Rossetti included Good Friday in her second volume of poetry, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems in 1866.

Good Friday

In the Church calendar, Good Friday is the Friday that precedes Easter Sunday and is the day when Christians remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus. It is called 'good' by Christians, because they believe the death of Jesus made it possible for human sin to be forgiven. It is a day many Christians dedicate to fasting and to prayer.

Devotional poetry

Good Friday is understood to be a devotional poem. In literature, the term ‘devotional' indicates writing which may enhance a person's religious faith or life. Rossetti wrote hundreds of devotional poems in her lifetime, both as an act of prayer expressing her close relationship with God and as an encouragement for her readers to live a life of devotion or worship. All of her devotional poems are based upon the promises, warnings and prophecies of the Bible.

Considering that Good Friday is included as the penultimate poem of the original volume, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems, it can be seen to reflect back upon the earlier poems included in the volume or to conclude some issues that previous poems raised but did not answer.

The crucifixion

CrucifixionCrucifixion is execution by nailing or binding a person to a cross. It was a practice which was used frequently in the Roman Empire and was one of the most painful and degrading forms of capital punishment in the ancient world. Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus (John 19:17-18), recorded in all four Gospels, made salvation available to humankind (John 3:16-17).

Greater than Moses

In the final verse, Rossetti declares that Christ is ‘Greater than Moses' (line 15). Moses was a very important Jewish leader. His life is described in the Old Testament, beginning in Exodus. Following God's command Moses struggled against the Egyptian Pharaoh (king) to get the Jewish people released from slavery. He then led them through the wilderness for 40 years towards the land of Canaan. During this time, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses is traditionally viewed as the author of the first five books of the Bible.

In Exodus, Moses was portrayed as:

  1. A shepherd – Exodus 3:1 describes Moses tending the flock of his father-in-law and he was seen as the shepherd of the Jewish people
  2. A leader - he leads the Jewish people through the wilderness
  3. A lawgiver - he is instructed by God to give the Israelites the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)
  4. A prophet - a prophet is someone who conveys God's message to human beings or speaks about the future sometimes through words alone, sometimes through dramatic actions. Throughout Exodus and other Old Testament books, Moses is described as hearing God speak and then passing his word onto the Israelites.

By declaring that Christ is greater than Moses, Rossetti suggests that he is capable of more:

  1. The poem declares that Christ is the ‘true Shepherd of the flock' (line 14). In the New Testament, Christ is described as the ultimate Shepherd. He declares:
     ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep'. John 10:11 TNIV
  2. Christ is a leader who calls people to follow him. Through his life, death and teaching he claims to lead people to eternal life
  3. According to Matthew, Jesus is the new law-giver and his law is the Sermon on the Mount. This is a collection of key teachings about the way in which Christians should live. It contains the nine Beatitudes, which are blessings promised to those who live according to the standards of The Kingdom of God Matthew 5:3-12
  4. The gospels describe Jesus as the Son of God, thus being greater than a prophet

The women

The speaker compares him/herself to ‘those women' who loved Christ and ‘with exceeding grief lamented Thee' (lines 5-6). This alludes to the description given in the Gospel of Luke of Jesus being led up to the place of crucifixion, followed by a crowd:

A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Luke 23:27 TNIV

Whilst the speaker wishes to be part of this number, s/he recognises that the numbness felt creates a separation from this experience.


The speaker continues to express a concern about such numbed emotions in the lament that s/he is unlike ‘fallen Peter weeping bitterly' (line 7).

During the course of the Last Supper, Peter assures Jesus that he is willing to follow him to prison or even to death. In response, Jesus tells Peter, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me'. (Luke 22: 34)

After Jesus had been arrested, Peter ran away and when he was accused of being one of his followers, he denied it. Upon being questioned a third time: The Gospel of Luke tells us that,

Peter replied, ‘Man, I don't know what you're talking about!' Just as he was speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the cock crows today, you will disown me three times'. And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:60-62) TNIV

It is the description of Peter weeping bitterly with which the speaker of Good Friday is concerned. The lament that s/he is not able to weep in the same way as him indicates that the speaker is unable to express remorse or sorrow.

The thief

According to the gospel accounts, when Jesus was crucified two criminals were also executed either side of him, one of whom recognised Jesus' innocence. The speaker compares his/her lack of feeling to this thief who, even in the midst of his own agony, has compassion for Christ. Luke 23:30-32,40

Sun and moon … great darkness

The speaker sees the fact that even nature is traumatised by Jesus' crucifixion as a contrast to his/her lack of feeling. This idea alludes to the following gospel account:

It was now about the sixth hour and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. Luke 23:44-5 TNIV


Investigating Good Friday

  • What associations do you have with the idea of a shepherd?
    • Are these associations met in the poem?
  • What associations do you have with the idea of sheep?
    • Are these associations met in the poem?
  • Why do you think that the speaker would rather resemble a sheep than a stone?
  • Why do you think that the speaker is unable to experience the crucifixion in the same way as the women, Peter or the thief?
  • What is the effect of alluding to the people described in the crucifixion narrative?
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