IN DONNE’S “GOOD FRIDAY, 1613: RIDING WESTWARD,” THE SPEAKER’S conflict is paradigmatic of a central paradox in Renaissance literature. Though his “soul’s form bends towards the east,” where he should see Christ crucified, he, the erring human, is carried by “pleasure or business” toward the west. He admits he is almost glad to “not see / That spectacle [the cross] of too much weight for me,” since “Who sees God’s face, that is self life, must die.” The speaker realizes he is not yet ready for the final surrender to God, but consoles himself by hoping that his act of disobedience, turning his back on Christ, will begin a process of transformation (“Burn off my rusts, and my deformity”) which will eventually restore the divine image within him. West paradoxically becomes east, but the circle may be completed only because the speaker insists first on asserting his own identity. Self-assertion becomes the first step toward self-surrender.
In the case of Donne’s speaker the journey westward is further justified by the fact that he keeps the images of Christ’s sacrifice “present yet unto my memory” But the poet does more than remember the passion; the poem itself is an act of imagination that gives meaning to the journey of self-assertion and gives hope for the future possibility of self-surrender. The conflict between self-assertion and self-surrender that Donne’s poem seems to resolve so neatly recurs as a major source of tension in other Renaissance works, though of course the conflict is not always easily resolved, and the imaginative response is often concerned with more than simply the transformation of sin in the sense of personal purgation. In a devotional lyric the parameters are necessarily limited—God, the human self, and the battle of wills between them—but much of the epic and dramatic literature of the period examines more fully the act of self-assertion, and sees it as a heroic and sometimes tragic endeavor. In this literature selfassertion becomes more than simply an act of rebellion against