Friday, April 6, 2012

Poems for Good Friday

For Good Friday, to contrasting poems by two very different masters of the devotional poem. I find it interesting that both, to an extent, express the same sentiments, and even present parallel elements. I was unable to confirm if Rossetti consciously based her poem on the earlier Donne, but she was known to take inspiration from earlier works, and then put her own personal twist on them. Both poets bemoan their lack of response to the ultimate sacrifice. Each notes the deep response of a woman: Donne acknowledges Mary, the mother of Christ; Rossetti, the women that mourned at the cross, and later first witnessed the resurrection. The two ask for a softening of their hard hearts at the close of the poems.

Donne writes his longer poem in Heroic Couplets; that is, in Iambic Pentameter with two consecutive rhyming lines. Chaucer is believed to have first popularized this form, with Alexander Pope and John Dryden the names most associated with this form. This formal style is typical of Donne and his era, and requires a careful reading and re-reading to tease out the gems of thought.

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. 

Rossetti uses her mastery of rhythm to lend the stanzas of her poem a certain focus. The first line in each, to my reading, contains four accented syllables. The unaccented syllables are dropped in some cases. This also occurs in the last line of stanza, where there are three accents. The middle two lines are pentameter, and are linked by rhyme, as are the first and last. Thus, the emphasis is on the beginning and end of the stanza, with the strongest impact left to the end. Rossetti, despite using far fewer words, makes the point with an impact equal to Donne.

Good Friday
By Christina Rossetti

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
     That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood's slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
     Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
     Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon   
     Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon--
     I, only I.
Yet give not o'er,
     But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
     And smite a rock.

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