“Robert Southwell was born around 1561 at Horsham St. Faith, Norfolk, the youngest son and fifth child in a family of eight. The Southwells, a county family that had prospered from the dissolution of the monasteries, formed part of a network of wealthy, interrelated families that included the Wriothsleys, Howards, Bacons, and Cecils as well as recusants such as Vaux, Arden, and Copley. Southwell was a studious boy whose father liked to call him ‘Father Robert.’ In 1576 Southwell, like many other boys of his class, was sent overseas to be educated in the Jesuit school at Douai. He would not see England again for ten years. Between the ages of fifteen and seventeen he became convinced of his vocation to a religious life, and in 1578 he was admitted to the noviceship at Rome, where he embarked upon his formation as a Jesuit. In 1581 he transferred from the Roman to the English College, where he became tutor and perfect of studies. He was ordained in 1584 and was sent on the English mission in 1586, landing secretly with his fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet somewhere between Dover and Folkestone in early July. He was about twenty-five years old.
“Christopher Devlin estimated a Catholic priest’s chance of survival in England in 1586 as one in three. Southwell led the active but disguised and secret life of a pastor for six years, working mostly in and around London except for some journeys into the Midlands. For much of this period he lived under the protection of Anne, countess of Arundel, whose husband, the earl, was a prisoner in the Tower of London. In June 1592 the notorious priest hunter Richard Topcliffe succeeded in capturing Southwell. Topcliffe, Elizabeth I’s servant and favorite, “an atrocious psychopath,” in Geoffrey Hill’s words, was allowed to torture prisoners in his own house. Southwell was in this man’s hands and then in the hands of Privy Council interrogators and torturers for a month; news of his transfer to solitary confinement in the Tower was a relief to his friends.
“After more than two years’ imprisonment he was moved to the notorious cell in Newgate called Limbo, and his trial took place on 20 February 1595 under the statute of 1585, which had made it treason to be a Catholic priest and administer the sacraments in England. He was found guilty and was executed the next day by hanging, drawing, and quartering. At his trial Southwell said that he had been tortured ten times and would rather have endured ten executions. Pierre Janelle, who quotes the records in detail, writes that Southwell made of his trial and execution “a work of art of supreme beauty.” He was thirty-three at his death. Pope Paul VI canonized him on 25 October 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
“Southwell wrote most of his English works between the time of his return to England in 1586 and his capture in 1592. As a prisoner he had no access to writing materials. Janelle described his literary career as an ‘apostolate of letters’ and thought that his superiors had instructed him to make writing a part of his missionary activity. This theory was perhaps based on the fact that Southwell and Garnet carried in their instructions permission to print “some small books for the defense of the faith and the edification of Catholics.” Other critics have treated Southwell’s work as versified doctrine, as religious propaganda, as a substitute for preaching, or as the outcome of his Jesuit training in religious faith and discipline by means of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Southwell states in the prefatory material to Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears(1591) and to Saint Peter’s Complaint (1595) that he wished to set an example of writing on religious themes in English, but nowhere does he say how or why he began to write.
“His earliest works, dating from his Roman years, are Latin poems preserved at Stonyhurst. Brian Oxley has shown that these youthful poems share the mature Southwell’s habits of thought as well as the verbal artistry found in his English work: “Southwell’s sense of the artifice of holy things, and indeed, of the holiness of artifice, is central to his life and work.” The Latin poems are evidence of a strong, probably irresistible vocation as a writer and poet.
“Southwell’s first full-length English work was the prose An Epistle of Comfort (1587), which originated as a series of pastoral letters written to his hostess’s husband, the earl of Arundel, imprisoned in the Tower for his religion. Southwell published the book on a secret press supplied by the help of the countess—although it is unlikely that the press was actually in Arundel House, as some authorities suggest. Helen C. White has shown that the Epistle of Comfort—a letter written to encourage the persecuted, even to the point of martyrdom—is an example of an ancient Christian genre. It has sixteen chapters, the first eleven devoted to the various sources of comfort for the afflicted Catholics.
“Southwell begins modestly and generally, pointing out that suffering is a sign that his readers are out of the devil’s power, loved by God, and imitators of Christ. Suffering, he argues, is inseparable from human life and in most cases is no more than the sufferer deserves. Then, at midpoint, he turns to the peculiar situation of the recusants, beginning with the argument that there is comfort in suffering for the Catholic faith. He then presents a series of all-too-real possibilities, starting with general persecution and ascending through imprisonment and violent death to martyrdom itself. The concluding chapters deal with the unhappiness of the lapsed, the impossibility of martyrdom for the heretic, the glory that awaits the martyr, and, lastly, a warning to the persecutors. The content and the style are much influenced by the patristic authors whom Southwell quotes so deftly; the tone is measured, unyielding, even triumphant. In Southwell’s mind, the Catholics’ suffering is a direct consequence of the Protestant heresy, and that in turn is a manifestation of the perennial evil of earthly life. To bear its effects is an honor: “Let our adversaries therefore load us with the infamous titles of traitors and rebels.” (Poetry Foundation)
In “The Burning Babe,” the poet (through the narrator) tells of a cold winter night in which he felt a sudden heat. Looking up he discovers a burning babe, who is weeping. The child says, “I am newly born. My faultless breast is my furnace, and justice gives it fuel. But no men come to warm themselves at this fire. The metals in the fire are the defiled souls of men.”
“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.”
When the babe had finished talking, the poet realized that was Christmas Day.
This particular poem is an allegory full of religious imagery and is typical of Southwell’s work. Although many of the figures are not particularly poetic (such as…”in fiery heats I fry”) nevertheless, the tone as a whole is quietly passionate and impressive.
From 1584 until 1592, Robert, an ordained priest, conducted missionary labors in London. Arrested, he remained in jail for three years before being martyred at Tybum. He passed on 21 February 1595. He is one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, canonized in 1970.