Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

23 August 2019

Donne has some insights into spiritual orientation, Malcolm Guite discovers

ONE evening, I found myself gazing westward towards a particularly beautiful sunset and half-remembering some lines from John Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”:

Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget.
 

Even as Donne indulges himself in his customary love of paradox, he teases out something essential about what you might call our spiritual “orientation”: we are driven by time towards the west, but drawn by God towards the east. In the outward and visible world, Donne, constrained by business, is riding westward — a direction that symbolises the journey of all our bodies towards sunset, decline, and death, westering away from the eastward moment of our morning and birth.

While Donne feels outwardly constrained to journey west, in heart and soul he wants to turn east, to turn and face towards Jerusalem, where the great drama of death and resurrection takes place.

Indeed, this spiritual orientation is outwardly expressed in the physical orientation of church buildings. Chronologically, we all face west: journeying from the morning of childhood, through the noon of our vigour and strength, towards the sunset of our waning years, where we will be lucky to escape the final cliché of a retirement home called Sunset View.

But, spiritually, the reverse is the case. Our churches face east, and the font that we might associate so much with birth and babyhood is, in fact, by the west door, because it is there, even as we enter the church, that we deal with our dying. We are baptised into that sunset and declination, made one with Christ in his death, so that we might also be one with him in his resurrection. We get death over with at the outset.

Thereafter, we grow younger: we move eastward towards that rising and beginning, that eternal sabbath, the first day of the week, which is our sunrise and resurrection. As St Paul so pithily put it, “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4.16). C. S. Lewis also expressed this perfectly in mythopoeic form in the best of his Narnia books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where he takes the pagan classical idea of the magical journey to the blessed isles — which, in Homer and Vergil, and in the voyages of Brendan, are all in the west — and reorients it, so we sail eastward towards sunrise.

All these and other thoughts were swirling in my mind as I gazed towards that sunset and began to compose this sonnet:

Westward

We’re looking west to where our setting sun,
Already out of sight, looks back at us, to fling
His dying splendour to these clouds. They burn
With borrowed gold and crimson, not their own,
Like strips of silk torn from his royal robe,
These flags of hope left by our solar king,
Who sinks for us below the dark horizon
That he might yet encompass all this globe.

He leaves us with the promise of his rising
For all we face the west of his decline,
Already somewhere else are voices praising,
As on the east they glimpse a kindled line.
His setting is a herald of the morn,
We watch the sunset, but we tread the dawn.

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