Saint Robert Southwell
Poet, Jesuit, martyr; born at Horsham St. Faith’s, Norfolk, England, in 1561; hanged and quartered at Tyburn, 21 February, 1595.
His grandfather, Sir Richard Southwell, had been a wealthy man and a prominent courtier in the reign of Henry VIII. It was Richard Southwell who in 1547 had brought the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, to the block, and Surrey had vainly begged to be allowed to “fight him in his shirt”. Curiously enough their respective grandsons, Father Southwell and Philip, Earl of Arundel, were to be the most devoted of friends and fellow-prisoners for the Faith. On his mother’s side the Jesuit was descended from the Copley and Shelley families, whence a remote connection may be established between him and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Robert Southwell was brought up a Catholic, and at a very early age was sent to be educated at Douai, where he was the pupil in philosophy of a Jesuit of extraordinary austerity of life, the famous Leonard Lessius. After spending a short time in Paris he begged for admission into the Society of Jesus—a boon at first denied. This disappointment elicited from the boy of seventeen some passionate laments, the first of his verses of which we have record. On 17 Oct., 1578, however, he was admitted at Rome, and made his simple vows in 1580. Shortly after his noviceship, during which he was sent to Tournai, he returned to Rome to finish his studies, was ordained priest in 1584, and became prefect of studies in the English College. In 1586 he was sent on the English mission with Father Henry Garnett, found his first refuge with Lord Vaux of Harrowden, and was known under the name of Cotton.
Two years afterwards he became chaplain to the Countess of Arundel and thus established relations with her imprisoned husband, Philip, Earl of Arundel, the ancestor of the present ducal house of Norfolk, as well as with Lady Margaret Sackville, the earl’s half-sister. Father Southwell’s prose elegy, “Triumphs over Death”, was addressed to the earl to console him for this sister’s premature death, and his “Hundred Meditations on the Love of God”, originally written for her use, were ultimately transcribed by another hand, to present to her daughter Lady Beauchamp.
Some six years were spent in zealous and successful missionary work, during which Father Southwell lay hidden in London, or passed under various disguises from one Catholic house to another. For his better protection he affected an interest in the pursuits of the country gentlemen of his day (metaphors taken from hawking are common in his writings), but his attire was always sober and his tastes simple. His character was singularly gentle, and he has never been accused of taking any part either in political intrigues or in religious disputes of a more domestic kind.
In 1592 Father Southwell was arrested at Uxendon Hall, Harrow, through the treachery of an unfortunate Catholic girl, Anne Bellamy, the daughter of the owner of the house. The notorious Topcliffe, who effected the capture, wrote exultingly to the queen: “I never did take so weighty a man, if he be rightly used”. But the atrocious cruelties to which Southwell was subjected did not shake his fortitude. He was examined thirteen times under torture by members of the Council, and was long confined in a dungeon swarming with vermin. After nearly three years in prison he was brought to trial and the usual punishment of hanging and quartering was inflicted.
Father Southwell’s writings, both in prose and verse, were extremely popular with his contemporaries, and his religious pieces were sold openly by the booksellers though their authorship was known. Imitations abounded, and Ben Jonson declared of one of Southwell’s pieces, “The Burning Babe”, that to have written it he would readily forfeit many of his own poems. “Mary Magdalene’s Tears“, the Jesuit’s earliest work, licensed in 1591, probably represents a deliberate attempt to employ in the cause of piety the euphuistic prose style, then so popular. “Triumphs over Death”, also in prose, exhibits the same characteristics; but this artificiality of structure is not so marked in the “Short Rule of Good Life”, the “Letter to His Father”, the “Humble Supplication to Her Majesty”, the “Epistle of Comfort” and the “Hundred Meditations”. Southwell’s longest poem, “St. Peter’s Complaint” (132 six-line stanzas), is imitated, though not closely, from the Italian “Lagrime di S. Pietro” of Luigi Tansillo. This with some other smaller pieces was printed, with license, in 1595, the year of his death. Another volume of short poems appeared later in the same year under the title of “Maeoniae”. The early editions of these are scarce, and some of them command high prices. A poem called “A Foure-fold Meditation”, which was printed as Southwell’s in 1606, is not his, but was written by his friend the Earl of Arundel. Perhaps no higher testimony can be found of the esteem in which Southwell’s verse was held by his contemporaries than the fact that, while it is probable that Southwell had read Shakespeare, it is practically certain that Shakespeare had read Southwell and imitated him.
[Ed. note: St. Robert Southwell was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.]
HERBERT THURSTON (1913 Catholic Encyclopedia)
The Burning Babe, by Saint Robert Southwell
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.
New Heaven, New War, by Saint Robert Southwell
Come to your heaven, you heavenly quires!
Earth hath the heaven of your desires;
Remove your dwelling to your God,
A stall is now His best abode;
Sith men their homage do deny,
Come, angels, all their faults supply.
His chilling cold doth heat require,
Come, seraphim, in lieu of fire;
This little ark no cover hath,
Let cherubs’ wings his body swathe;
Come, Raphael, this babe must eat,
Provide our little Toby meat.
Let Gabriel be now His groom,
That first took up His earthly room;
Let Michael stand in His defence,
Whom love hath link’d to feeble sense;
Let graces rock when He doth cry,
And angels sing this lullaby.
The same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is He that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agnize your King a mortal wight,
His borrow’d weed lets not your sight;
Come, kiss the manger where He lies;
That is your bliss above the skies.
This little babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.
With tears He fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield,
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows, looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns, cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, hay-stalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His muster makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that He hath pight;
Within His crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.
Man’s Civil War, by Saint Robert Southwell
My hovering thoughts would fly to heaven
And quiet nestle in the sky,
Fain would my ship in Virtue’s shore
Without remove at anchor lie.
But mounting thoughts are halèd down
With heavy poise of mortal load,
And blustring storms deny my ship
In Virtue’s haven secure abode.
When inward eye to heavenly sights
Doth draw my longing heart’s desire,
The world with jesses of delights
Would to her perch my thoughts retire,
Fon Fancy trains to Pleasure’s lure,
Though Reason stiffly do repine ;
Though Wisdom woo me to the saint,
Yet Sense would win me to the shrine.
Where Reason loathes, there Fancy loves,
And overrules the captive will ;
Foes senses are to Virtue’s lore,
They draw the wit their wish to fill.
Need craves consent of soul to sense,
Yet divers bents breed civil fray ;
Hard hap where halves must disagree,
Or truce halves the whole betray !
O cruel fight ! where fighting friend
With love doth kill a favoring foe,
Where peace with sense is war with God,
And self-delight the seed of woe !
Dame Pleasure’s drugs are steeped in sin,
Their sugared taste doth breed annoy ;
O fickle sense ! beware her gin,
Sell not thy soul to brittle joy !
________________________[Nobility.org comment: His gentle upbringing was of great assistance to him in his days as an “underground priest” in Elizabethan England. It helped him too when, having been betrayed by a Judas, he was arrested and forced to endure torture, cruel and long imprisonment, winning at last the crown of martyrdom. May Tertullian’s assertion that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of new Christians” be true for St. Robert Southwell and may his intercession in Heaven bring millions back to the faith today.]