restricted access The Author of “The Burning Babe.” An unsigned review of The Book of Robert Southwell, by Christobel M. Hood
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[ 797 The Author of “The Burning Babe” An unsigned review of The Book of Robert Southwell by Christobel M. Hood1 Oxford: Blackwell, 1926. Pp. vii + 157. Times Literary Supplement, 1278 (29 July 1926) 508 Robert Southwell was the third son of a gentleman of good family in Norfolk; through his mother’s family he was related to the Shelleys; and he was born in or about the year 1562. The family had arrived at considerable prosperity by the benevolence of Henry VIII and the spoliation of the monasteries; but Robert Southwell was sent as a boy to Douay to be educated by Jesuits. In Douay and in Paris his education bore fruit; and in 1578 he was admitted to the Society of Jesus. He occupied for some time a position in Rome, and in 1586 was sent as a missionary to England. In this very hazardous labour he passed the rest of his life, with one short interim of comparative security under the protection of the Countess of Arundel, to whom he was domestic chaplain.2 In 1592 he was betrayed and apprehended ; after sundry tortures he was confined for nearly three years in the Tower, and then hanged at Tyburn.3 No suspicion of political intrigue or espionage seems ever to have attached to him: he was hanged solely as a Jesuit priest occupied in priestly functions in defiance of the law. So much we learn from Mrs. Hood’s biographical introduction to the devotional poems which Southwell wrote in his few moments of leisure. The story is one of great interest and introduces us to a group of people who are too little known. Mrs. Hood writes in sympathy with Father Southwell and his fellow-martyrs. The material is so interesting (besides being interestingly handled) that we regret the absence of a fuller bibliography . As a piece of editing and literary criticism the volume is less satisfactory . The poems included are only the shorter poems; they cover only 78 pages of large type (the whole volume, including the introduction, is 157 pages). So few of the poems are first rate that we regret that this edition is not a complete and more scholarly work. If the book was intended as a biography of a devout and courageous priest, a few of the poems might have been included as specimens; if the book was to be primarily of literary 1926 798 ] interest, then the poetical works should have been given complete and some critical account of them attempted. We should like to know something about Father Southwell’s reading and taste. If nothing is known, then it should be stated that nothing is known; but Mrs. Hood has only the unhelpful comment: “He was evidently well acquainted with the works of Shakespeare and other contemporaries” [76]. This is a pity, for the poetry of Southwell, if never first rate, is a document of some interest to the student of Elizabethan and especially of seventeenth-century metaphysical verse. The poem chosen by that remarkable critic Ben Jonson is certainly the best;4 for besides the specific qualities of Southwell’s verse it has a directness and force of movement elsewhere absent. It is short enough to give entire: As I in hoary Winter’s night stood shiveringe in the snowe, Surpris’d I was with sodayne heat, which made my hart to glowe; And liftinge upp a fearfull eye to vewe what fire was nere, A pretty Babe all burninge bright, did in the ayre appeare, Who scorchèd with excessive heate, such floodes of teares did shedd, As though His floodes should quench His flames which with His teares   were fedd; Alas, quoth He, but newly borne, in fiery heates I frye, Yet none approch to warme their harts or feel my fire but I! My faultles brest the fornace is, the fuell woundinge thornes, Love is the fire, and sighes the smoke, the ashes shame and scornes; The fuell Justice layeth on, and Mercy blowes the coales, The metall in this fornace wrought are men’s defilèd soules, For which, as nowe on fire I am, to worke them to their good, So will I melt into a bath to washe them in My bloode: With this He vanisht out of sight, and swiftly shroncke awaye, And straight I callèd unto mynde that it was Christmas-daye. This is a genuine variation on the “fourteener,” and a curious example of an antecedent of the “metaphysical” religious...