On the day that Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus, the poet is traveling west but thinks of the Holy Land to the east. He can hardly imagine seeing Jesus die on the cross with his own eyes, so he turns his thoughts to Mary for a moment. Traveling west, his back faces east, and he calls upon divine mercy and grace to cleanse him of his sin so that he feels able to turn his face back towards God.
John Donne wrote this poem during a westward ride from Warwickshire to Montgomery, Wales. It is a sincere meditation on one of the most important days in the Christian calendar, the day on which Christians commemorate the Crucifixion of Jesus. There appears to be no satire or sarcasm in this poem, and for Donne this poem is relatively restrained with regard to poetic conceits. The imagery tends to clarify rather than confuse the poet’s points, and his prostration before Christ appears heartfelt and moving.
The meter generally forms heroic couplets, rhymed in iambic pentameter, perhaps to evoke the majesty of the subject. There are 42 lines, perhaps making this poem a triple sonnet, although there are no stanza breaks and the rhyme scheme is entirely made up of couplets. Perhaps this structure of three sonnets in one poem evokes the Trinity. Another possible division is to split the poem in two equal halves, since the word “sphere” in the first line is parallel with “spheres” to start the second half of the poem. As for the couplets, in one case the last word “die” is repeated, and the last words in one quartet of lines oddly repeat “is,” “antipodes,” “is,” “His” as the rhymes.
Donne begins by likening souls to spheres, insisting that the most important aspect of a person’s existence is the central spiritual sphere of a person’s “intelligence.” In contrast, the external world, with its own spheres of “pleasure or business,” distracts a person from fulfilling his true identity (“Scarce in a year their natural form obey”). This contrast is made real to the poet, who is traveling west even while his soul “bends to the East,” the site of the Crucifixion in the Holy Land (1-10).
This contrast also sets up the paradox or tension in the poet’s mind: he must look upon and commemorate the Crucifixion, but for various reasons it is very difficult for him to gaze on Jesus on the Cross, dying for the sins of the world and for the poet’s sins. This difficulty is not only because the poet is traveling in the wrong direction and that tradition states that one cannot look upon God and live (see Exodus 33:20). More importantly, the poet feels emotionally and spiritually unworthy; the scene carries “too much weight for me.”
To resolve the difficulty, the poet must be purified of his sin. Stating “I turn my back to thee, but to receive/Corrections,” (37-38) he is asking for penance. A common penance in Donne’s time was flogging in which the person punished would have his back toward the flogger (with the added resonance of an allusion to the flogging that Christ received before his Crucifixion). Another common spiritual image is cleansing, such as by fire, and here the poet asks for God’s attention to “punish me,/Burn off my rusts, and my deformity” (39-40). Through this purification, God will “restore” his own “image” in the poet (recalling the biblical principle that man is made in the image of God), so that the poet will finally be able to “turn my face” and be worthy to be recognized by God. In this way, the poet can reclaim his Christian life in but not of the world, since God’s hands will “tune all spheres at once.”
This is a lyric poem, in that the poet is talking about himself and his particular situation (Gardner 132). Donne has begun this piece, like so many other of his poems, with a conceit. Comparing a person’s soul to a sphere or the movement of a heavenly body (perhaps a wandering planet) seems to end about line 24 with the imagery of “zenith” and “antipodes.” Although Gardner claims that Donne throws away this conceit halfway through the poem, Gardner appears to miss the idea that the poet’s head is a sphere, too, and the seat of intelligence and the soul at that. Thus, in the final line, when the poet will “turn my face,” he concludes the poems with a rotating sphere. He has come full circle, as it were.