Robert Southwell, Poet, Witness, Saint

To be a martyr is to be a witness. A man who wishes to witness will bring forth treasures he has from his storehouse, to spend them on behalf of his Master. When those treasures consist of Holy Orders, an education with the Jesuits, a brave spirit, and the imagination of a poet, the result is a Saint Robert Southwell, a priest and a writer of prose and poetry. One of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, he was executed in 1595, for the alleged crime of treason.

His writing was circulated and was popular in his lifetime. Some was probably set to music. (Modern composers including Benjamin Britten still set some of his works to music. See parts of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols). His writing influenced English writers of the time, probably including Shakespeare. He was a missionary in England for six years before he was arrested. Once imprisoned, he was treated cruelly, left in the Tower for three years and tortured thirteen times.

Finally his execution date was set. From “They Died at Tyburn”: ‘Arrived at Tyburn he made the sign of the Cross as well as he could with his manacled hands, and then began to speak to the people in the words of the Apostle”: “Whether we live, we live to the Lord, or whether we die, we die to the Lord; therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”‘

Many were grieved at his execution, possibly including queen Elizabeth. He seems always to have been determined to place all of his life, including his literary gifts, into the service of Christ, as a witness. Here in this season of Advent, enjoy this poem by Southwell.

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, scorchëd 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 defilëd 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 callëd unto mind
that it was Christmas day.

Please see these links for more poems and information on Robert Southwell, SJ, poet and martyr:  – A good essay