Commentary on Good Friday, 1613

By others hurried

The opening eight lines reveal a problem that sometimes we think is a modern one: our lives are rushed along by quite other forces than those we would choose. Donne's natural choice, as a religious man, is to obey the desires of his soul which is towards ‘devotion', especially on such a sacred day as Good Friday. Instead ‘Pleasure or businesse' send him on a different course, which, at heart, feels unnatural.

Spectacle of too much weight

Donne would rather be meditating on Christ dying on the cross. We know from the Ignatian methods of meditation he used that this would involve a good deal of imaginative re-creation of the scene. He says he's almost glad he cannot do it, since

That spectacle (is) of too much weight for mee

especially as he is aware of ‘Who sees God's face ... must dye', a reference to Exodus 33:20. Ironically, he is of course in fact reflecting on Christ's death throughout the poem.

Rhetorical questions

He moves into a series of rhetorical questions (ll.18-27), in which he spells out the weighty details of the crucifixion scene as depicted in the Gospels. These include an earthquake ‘his footstool crack' Matthew 27:51 and an eclipse ‘the Sunne winke' Mark 15:33. More significant is the piercing of the hands of Jesus John 20:25, since in his imagination he sees Christ's hands as turning the whole universe ‘And turne all spheares at once'. In Christian teaching, it is Christ who upholds the universe Hebrews 1:3.

Even if he did dare look on these details in his imagination, would he be able to look on Jesus' mother, Mary, in her sorrow John 19:25, he asks in a final question. She ‘furnish'd thus/ Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us' Donne uses biblical language here, Christ's death being seen as a sacrifice, akin to the sacrifice made at the Jewish Passover Hebrews 10:10-12, and as a ransom Matthew 20:28 – a sacrifice because these were needed to cover sin; and a ransom, because salvation, or freedom, needs to be purchased.


In the last section he admits he can see these details (‘present yet unto my memory'), yet figuratively he feels as if he is turning his back on Christ hanging on the cross. The back is the place for correction, so he asks for himself to have his punishment ‘till mercies bid thee leave'. The sentiment is a theological conceit, since only Christ can take human punishment, and it is his mercy, already shown, that made it possible. So the only punishment Donne will literally receive is a guilty conscience. The poem then becomes an expression of this, his penance, as it were. This is expressed in a final prayer ‘Burne off my trusts and my deformity', asking God to cleanse him so that he can turn back, now to face God without shame.

Investigating Good Friday, 1613
  • Look carefully at the subject matter of Good Friday, 1613, especially the final section of the poem
    • Are ‘corrections' (l.38) the same as punishment?
    • Explain ‘That blood which is/The seat of all our Soules' (ll.25-26)
    • How has Mary ‘furnish'd … halfe that sacrifice'?
  • Compare the final section with the Holy Sonnet Batter my Heart
    • Do you find significant similarities?
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