Analysis of Robert Southwell’s Poems

Robert Southwell (1561 – 1595) wrote religious poetry with a didactic purpose. In the prose preface to a manuscript, addressed to his cousin, he says that poets who write of the “follies and fayninges” of love have discredited poetry to the point that “a Poet, a Lover, and a Liar, are by many reckoned but three words of one signification.” Poetry, however, was used for parts of Scripture, and may be used for hymns and spiritual sonnets. He has written his poetry to give others an example of subject matter, he says, and he hopes that other more skillful poets will follow his example. He flies from “prophane conceits and fayning fits” and applies verse to virtue, as David did. Perhaps his distaste for the stylized love poetry of his time explains the absence of sonnets in his writing. Although Southwell’s purpose in writing was didactic, he was often more emotional than purely intellectual. His poems are seldom tranquil. They tend to startle through his use of the unexpected, the fantastic, and the grotesque, and may thus be described as baroque. Southwell is also linked to the baroque movement in his use of Italian models and such themes as weeping, anticipating the seventeenth century Roman Catholic poet Richard Crashaw.

As might be expected, death is a recurring theme in his poetry, yet he makes the theme universal rather than personal, for his purpose was instructive and oral rather than merely self-expressive. In “Upon the Image of Death,” for example, he speaks of what is apparently a memento mori kind of picture that he often looks at, but he still does not really believe that he must die;  historical personages and people he has known have all died, and yet it is difficult to think that he will die. There are personal touches, such as references to his gown, his knife, and his chair, but all are reminders to him and to all of inevitable death, “And yet my life amend not I.” The poem’s simplicity and universality give it a proverbial quality.

His most inspired poems were about birth rather than death, the birth of the Christ child. In part 6 of “The Sequence on the Virgin Mary and Christ,” “The Nativitie of Christ,” he uses the image of the bird that built the nest being hatched in it, and ends with the image of the Christ child as hay, the food for the beasts that human beings have become through sin. His image of Christ is often that of a child, as in “A Child My Choice,” where he stresses the superior subject he praises in the poem, compared with the foolish praise of what “fancie” loves. While he loves the Child, he lives in him, and cannot live wrongly. In the middle two stanzas of this four stanza poem, he uses a great deal of alliteration, parallelism, and antithesis to convey the astonishing nature of this Child, who is young, yet wise;  small, yet strong;  and man, yet God. At the end of the poem, he sees Christ weeping, sighing, and panting while his angels sing. Out of his tears, sighs, and throbs buds a joyful spring. At the end of the poem, he prays that this Child will help him in correcting his faults and will direct his death. The prayer was of course meant to be didactic, but it assumes a very personal meaning because of Southwell’s manner of death. The themes of the Nativity and of death are thus artistically linked.

A Vale of Teares

As Vincent Barry Leitch has stated, the Incarnation serves as a paradigm of God’s love for human beings and signifies God’s sanctification of human life. There is thus a strong sense of the divine in human life in most of Southwell’s poems, yet some of the poems are referred to as “desolation poems” because this sense of God in human life is absent. Sin is prevalent, and the sinner feels remorse. In “A vale of teares,” for example,God seems to be absent, leaving people alone to work things out for themselves. The poem is heavily descriptive, describing a valley of the Alps and painting a picture of a dreary scene that is in keeping with a sense of loneliness and desolation. It is wild,mountainous, windy, and thunderous, and although the green of the pines and moss suggests hope, hope quails when one looks at the cliffs. The poem ends with an apostrophe to Deep Remorse to possess his breast, and bidding Delights adieu. The poem has been linked to the conventional love lyric in which the lover, in despair, isolates himself from the world, but it has also been linked to the Ignatian Exercises of the Jesuits.

San Roberto Southwell

Saint Peter’s Complaint

Another poem on the theme of isolation and remorse is the long dramatic poem Saint Peter’s Complaint, comprising 132 stanzas of six lines each, based on an Italian work by Luigi Tansillo (1510 1568), Le Lagrime di San Pietro (the tears of Saint Peter). Southwell wrote a translation of part of Tansillo’s poem, titling it, “Peeter Playnt,” and two other poems, “S. Peters complaint,” a poem of eleven stanzas, and “Saint Peters Complaynte,” a poem of twelve stanzas. These three apparently represent stages in the composition of the long poem. In the translation, there is an objective rather than a first person point of view, and Peter’s denying Christ was an action in the immediate past in the courtyard, while reference is made to the suffering Peter will experience in the future. In each of the three original versions, Peter is the speaker and the time and place are indefinite. Much of the material in “Saint Peters Complaynte” is incorporated in the long poem. The uneven quality of the long poem has caused Janelle to assign it to a nearly period of experimentation, but McDonald and Brown see it as an unpolished work left unfinished when Southwell was arrested.

In the long poem, Saint Peter indulges in an extended nautical conceit, appropriate for this speaker, of sailing with torn sails, using sighs for wind, remorse as the pilot, torment as the haven, and shipwreck as the best reward. He hopes his complaints will be heard so that others will know that there is a more sorrowful one than they, and he lists all the unfortunate things he is, one to a line for a whole stanza, including “An excrement of earth. . . .” He says that others may fill volumes in praise of “your forged Goddesse,” a reference to the literary fashion of praising some supposed love, who might not be real at all. Saint Peter’s griefs will be his text and his theme. Several times in his works, Southwell makes this distinction between the falseness of stylized love poetry and the reality of religious themes. Saint Peter says that he must weep, and here Southwell em ploys hyperbole, for a sea will hardly rinse Peter’s sin;  he speaks of high tides, and says that all those who weep should give him their tears. The poem is heavily rhetorical, with many exclamations, parallelisms, repetitions, questions, and comparisons. Saint Peter had not thought that he would ever deny Christ. In lines 673677, Southwell characteristically begins a line with a word that had already appeared toward the end of the preceding line, thus patterning Peter’s “circkling griefes.” Peter compares himself to a leper with sores and asks Christ’s forgiveness. The taunts that Peter levels at the woman in the courtyard in the poem have been taken to suggest a parallel between the woman’s actions and those of Queen Elizabeth. Alice Mary Lubin, in a study of Southwell’s religious complaint lyrics, says that this poem differs from the traditional complaint poem in that the complaining figure is separated from Christ rather than from a figure such as a lover and that it differs from medieval religious complaint poems because it constitutes a statement of remorse rather than being simply a lament. A description of Peter’s isolation occupies much of the pom. Lubin does not see the work as an ordered meditative poem;  rather, it resembles an Italian “weeper” poem in subject, though not in treatment.She suggests analogues in A Mirror for Magistrates (1555) and in the Old Testament Lamentations.

The Burning Babe

Southwell’s most famous work, “The Burning Babe,” combines several of his favorite themes, including the Nativity, isolation, guilt, and purification, into a vision poem that becomes a lament. He presents the material as a mystical vision. The occasion is presented dramatically, for it was a “hoary winter’s night” and he was shivering in the snow when he felt the sudden heat that made him look up to see the fire. The dramatic contrasts continue, as he speaks of seeing a pretty baby;  but it is in the air, not where a baby would be, and it is “burning bright,” like a fire. The image is deliberately odd, ambiguous, and out of place. The next image, that the baby is “scorched” with great heat, turns the odd image into a horrible one, conveying the idea that the baby’s body is no longer white but discolored from a fire that is not a mere metaphor. The fire is not from the air, but from inside the body, which means that there is no escape for the baby. The next image is ironic, for the baby cries copiously, as if the “floods” of tears could quench the flames, which they cannot do.

When the baby speaks, it is to lament that he fries in this heat although he has just been born, and yet no one seeks to warm the heart at this fire, and no one but the baby feels this fire. Here the Christ child is very much alone. It is not until the next line, however, that the baby is clearly identified as Christ, when he says that the furnace (the place where the fire is) is his breast, and the fuel is “wounding thorns.” The ironic crown of thorns of the Crucifixion becomes fuel for the fire. His breast is kept burning because people wound him with thorns and hurt him through their mocking actions. The Crucifixion was a specific event, but the fire is a continuing torment, so the “wounding thorns” must be not only the crown of thorns but also the sins that people are continuing to commit.

Vision poems have often had a guide figure, someone who leads the viewer and explains the allegorical significance of the vision. Here the baby is both the vision and the guide, resulting in a kind of ironic horror. The image throughout this section of the poem is that of a furnace, a piece of technology used for creating and working things. The baby explains that the fire is love, a rather complicated idea, for it is the “wounding thorns” that keep the fire (the love) alive. Christ’s love feeds on the wrongs of human beings. Heloves human beings despite their sins, and indeed because of their sins. The smoke is sighs, his emotional dissatisfaction with what is happening and how people are acting. The ashes are the residue, the residual shame and scorn. The shame is Christ’s embarrassment at being crucified and the equal embarrassment of the constant crucifixion He suffers because of continuing sin. The scorn is the rejection of his reality and the mission that he came into the world as a baby to accomplish, the taking of sins onto himself. Thus the residue of the fire is the shame and scorn, not entirely consumed in the fire but left over and ever present. Two personifications now enter the allegory. Justice puts the fuel on the fire, for it is not only that the sins and injustices of human beings be burnt,consumed, transformed in this way, but it is also Mercy that “blows the coals,” that keeps the fire of love going strong by blowing air onto it. The imagery has changed from the “wounding thorns” causing the baby to be on fire, to the necessity and justice of burning up and burning away the wrongs of humans in the heat of God’s love, which is kept going by his mercy.

The metals that are worked in this furnace are the souls of human beings, which have been defiled, but which are to be changed in the fire, thus representing another change in the imagery. Christ is now on fire to change them into something better, and he says that he will “melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.” A bath is a cleansing, a purification,and after feeling the love of God, they will be purified by a cooling liquid, ironically not water, but Christ’s blood, another touch of horror but also of love and glory. Saying that he would melt, a term meaning depart or disappear, but having special imagistic significance here because of the burning, the Christ child vanishes. The reader is conscious that the baby will become the crucified Christ, and the poet realizes that it is Christmas. Southwell here makes the Christ child the isolated one, most ironically, and develops the symbolism to make the reader feel remorse for his sins. The poem’s startlingly grotesque subject clearly links it to the baroque movement.

Joy and Alienation

Southwell’s main themes were the opposing ones of the joyous Incarnation, with its joining of God and human beings, and the tragic desolation of feeling the alienation of self from God through sin. Striking images with strong emotion achieve a religious purpose of affecting the reader. In his short life, Southwell wrote many fine poems in a language he had once forgotten. He referred very little in his poetry to the persecution that overshadowed his life, choosing to write instead of religious experiences that transcended time and place.

Major Works
Nonfiction: Epistle of a Religious Priest unto to His Father, Exhorting Him to the Perfect Forsaking of the World, 1589; Mary Magdalens Funerall Teares, 1591; Letter to Sir Robert Cecil, 1593; An Humble Supplication to Her Majestie, pb. 1595 (wr.1591); A Short Rule of Good Life: To Direct the Devout Christian in a Regular and Orderly Course, 1596; The Triumphs over Death: Or, A Consolatory Epistle for Afflicted Minds, in the Affects of Dying Friends, pb. 1596 (wr. 1591); An Epistle of Comfort, pb.1605 (wr. 1591); A Hundred Meditations on the Love of God, pb. 1873 (wr. c. 1585); Two Letters and Short Rules of a Good Life, 1973 (Nancy Pollard Brown, editor).

Brownlow, F. W.Robert Southwell. New York: Twayne, 1996.
Caraman, Philip.A Study in Friendship: Saint Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995.
Caraman, Philip. A Study in Friendship: Saint Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet. St.Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995.
Deane, John F.From the Marrow Bone: The Religion of Poetry—The Poetry of Religion. Blackrock, Ireland: Columba Press, 2008.
Janelle, Pierre.Robert Southwell the Writer: A Study in Religious Inspiration. 1935. Reprint. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: Paul J. Appel, 1971.
Moseley, D. H.Blessed Robert Southwell. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1957.
Pilarz, Scott R.Robert Southwell and the Mission of Literature, 1561 1595: Writing Reconciliation. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003.
Scallon, Joseph D.The Poetry of Robert Southwell, S. J. Salzburg: Institute for English Language and Literature, 1975.
Sweeney, Anne R.Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia—Redrawing the English Lyric Landscape, 1586 1595. New York: Manchester University Press, 2006.

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