Robert Southwell Context1

Robert Southwell c. 1561-1595
English poet and religious writer.
Before he was martyred at age thirty-three for his activities as a Jesuit priest in
Protestant England, Southwell earned a reputation among Catholics as a tireless
missionary whose writings sought to provide comfort and to return believers to the
church. While working as a missionary in England, he composed prose and poetry
focused on the need for faith in times of persecution and the importance of
repentance. Southwell's best-known works are the long poem Saint Peters Complaint
(1595), the lyric poem “The Burning Babe” (1595), and the prose meditation Mary
Magdalens Funeral Teares (1591). His devotional works are unusual for their
emphasis on passionate love and the interior state of the believer and are generally
regarded as important antecedents to the works of poets such as John Donne, George
Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was admired by his contemporaries,
including Ben Jonson, for his emotionally charged poetry, and he continues to be
revered among Catholics as a saint and martyr.
Biographical Information
Southwell was born in Norfolk, England, around 1561, to a prominent Catholic
family. In 1576 he was sent to France to be educated at the Jesuit school in Douai. He
eventually gained admission to the Jesuit novitiate in Rome, and in 1584 he was
ordained a priest. Two years later Southwell returned in secret to England as a
missionary. At the time, many Catholics were leaving the country because of
persecution by the Church of England, and Southwell's presence in England as a
Jesuit missionary was considered treason. He spent six years performing his
missionary work, hiding or using disguise to avoid arrest. He became chaplain to
Anne, countess of Arundel and maintained communication with her husband, Philip,
earl of Arundel, who was imprisoned for his faith. During this time Southwell also
composed religious poetry and prose, some of which was published in secret. In 1591
he wrote An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie expressing his disagreement with
the Church of England. He was arrested a year later at Uxendon Hall, Harrow, after he
was betrayed by a young Catholic woman, Anne Bellamy. Bellamy had herself been
arrested for her faith, and had succumbed to pressure from Richard Topcliffe, a
notorious minister who made a career of persecuting Catholics. Southwell was
examined thirteen times under torture at Topcliffe's home before being sent to the
Tower of London, where he was confined to a dungeon without light or ventilation,
and hung by his hands with metal straps. Southwell never renounced his Catholic
faith, despite his sufferings. Eventually, Southwell's father sent a petition to Queen
Elizabeth begging that his son receive more humane treatment, which she granted.
After three years in the Tower Southwell was brought to trial for the capital crime of
being a priest and a Jesuit. Found guilty, he was hanged for treason at Tyburn on
February 21, 1595. He was canonized as a saint in 1970.
Major Works
Southwell began writing poetry in Latin while studying for the priesthood in Rome.
Most of his English works were composed between his return to England in 1586 and
his capture in 1592. Scholars have had difficulty dating his poetry, while the dates of
his prose works are fairly clear. His first full-length English composition, An Epistle
of Comfort, to the Reuerend Priestes (1587), began as a series of letters written to the
imprisoned Earl of Arundel. The sixteen chapters of the work offer comfort to those
persecuted for their beliefs and chastise their persecutors as well as those who have
lapsed from their faith. Mary Magdalens Funeral Teares, a meditation on Mary
Magdalen's intense feelings and experiences after discovering Jesus's empty tomb,
was published in 1591. The Triumphs over Death composed in 1591 and published in
1595, is an elegy on death addressed to Arundel to console him after the premature
death of his half-sister. An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie was a reply to a 1591
proclamation that declared that Catholics were being punished purely for political and
not religious reasons. In this work Southwell denies the claims made in the
proclamation and argues for Catholics' right to humane treatment. One of Southwell's
most popular publications was the handbook A Short Rule of Good Life (c. 1596-97),
which contains advice to lay persons about how to live as a Christian. Although none
of Southwell's English poems were published during his lifetime, many of them likely
circulated in manuscript. In 1595, shortly after his death, fifty-two of his lyrics and his
long poem Saint Peters Complaint, were collected in a volume. Another volume of
short poems appeared later in the same year under the title Moeoniae. Saint Peters
Complaint, written in 132 six-line stanzas, is a dramatic monologue spoken by Saint
Peter after his betrayal of Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiphus. The poem
explores the themes of contrition and repentance. Southwell's shorter poetry is also
devoted to Christian subjects, explaining humanity's responsibility to respond to
revelation with love and atonement. The best known of Southwell's fifty-seven
surviving lyrics is “The Burning Babe,” a poem on the Nativity in sixteen lines in
which the infant Jesus is depicted as literally burning with a love so intense that even
the tears of sorrow he weeps at humanity's rejection of him cannot extinguish its fire.
Other well-known poems include “A Vale of Tears,” a look at the conscience-ridden
soul; “Christs Bloody Sweat,” about Jesus's agony in Gethsemane; “New Prince, New
Pomp,” about the birth of Jesus; and “Upon the Image of Death,” a meditation on
death that focuses on the inner state of the narrator.
Critical Reception
During his life Southwell's works were published anonymously or circulated in
manuscript among a small circle of Catholic believers, but he achieved fame as a
writer and religious leader nonetheless. Later, even though Southwell was regarded as
a criminal by the authorities, his works began to be sold openly by booksellers. It is
likely that William Shakespeare read and imitated Southwell, and Ben Jonson
declared that he would gladly have forfeited many of his own poems to have written
“The Burning Babe.” For several decades after Southwell's death, his works were
widely read and praised for their precision of language, beautiful rhythms, and
combination of passion and intellectual analysis. Like many minor poets of the
sixteenth century, Southwell's reputation throughout succeeding centuries was
overshadowed by that of such masters as Shakespeare and Jonson as well as the great
seventeenth-century English devotional poets John Donne and George Herbert.
Modern scholarship of Southwell can be said to start in 1935, when Pierre Janelle
offered a comprehensive examination of Southwell's life and writing, emphasizing his
Catholic humanism and Jesuit neoclassicism. In 1954 Louis Martz, in a critical
treatise that argued that seventeenth-century English religious poetry drew its
distinctive qualities from spiritual exercises, included what is now regarded as a
seminal work of Southwell scholarship. In his essay Martz compared Southwell's
work with that of Herbert and Donne and claimed that Southwell anticipated many of
the themes and concerns found in later writers, but that his poetry shows him
struggling to express these ideas in lyrical fashion. Much subsequent criticism of
Southwell's poetry has been indebted to Martz and his assessment of the meditative
structure of the poet's verse. Many critics have concentrated on the use of emotion in
Southwell's poetry and its themes of contrition and repentance. While most scholars
acknowledge the emotional power of the poem “The Burning Babe,” there is general
agreement that Southwell's verse is uneven, that some poems are awkward,
melodramatic, and unconvincing, while others are written with great simplicity,
power, and clarity of thought. In general, modern critics have concentrated on
Southwell's poetry, probably because of its more universal appeal; the prose works
tend to cover topical events whose details might be lost on modern readers.
Nevertheless, Southwell's prose is generally considered to be of consistently high
quality, and some critics have maintained that his lucid, well-reasoned arguments and
precise language place him among the pioneers of English prose writing. While a few
critics have claimed that Southwell's status as a martyr and poet is exaggerated, he is
widely regarded as an important historical figure whose poetry at its best presents
religious ideas in beautiful and passionate form, and whose prose writings provide
insights on the experiences and difficulties faced by Catholics in Protestant England.