“The Burning Babe,” by Robert Southwell, is one of the most famous and powerful Christmas poems in the English language. Written in carefully crafted rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, the poem is sixteen lines long, and each of its long lines is skillfully broken by a caesura (pause), which occurs after the first four feet and before the last three. Yet, despite its structural complication, “The Burning Babe” relates its astonishing, mystical occurrences in a smoothly flowing narrative.
In the first four lines of the poem, a cold and isolated narrator stands “shivering” in the snow at night when he suddenly senses a comforting “heat” which lifts his spirits and causes his “heart to glow.” Nevertheless, he casts a “fearful” glance at the source of the heat and, astonishingly, he sees, suspended in the air, “A pretty babe all burning bright.” This “burning babe” is the infant Jesus Christ.
In lines 5 through 8 of the poem, the Christ child’s peculiar condition is carefully described: the babe is “scorchèd with excessive heat” and shedding “floods of tears.” Finally, this amazing and sorrowful image speaks, not with the joy usually associated with Christmas, but with the complaint that “none approach to warm their hearts.” Clearly, the babe is reminding the stunned narrator that the extraordinary miracle of the Incarnation (Christ’s human birth) is too often taken for granted and that men too...
(The entire section is 441 words.)