Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Burning Babe” is a poem about Christian redemption. It was written by Robert Southwell, a young Jesuit priest, who violated an English decree that no Catholic Masses could be celebrated in England. As a result, Southwell was hunted, captured, and viciously tortured by Richard Topcliffe, one of Queen Elizabeth’s most brutal “pursuivants” (priest-hunters). At the time he wrote the poem, Southwell was awaiting trial and certain execution in the Tower of London. In his poem, Southwell clearly reflects on his own coming death and his hopes of personal redemption.

Unlike most Christmas poems that focus on the nativity scene and emphasize the joy of the Incarnation, Southwell’s poem is a strange, deep, and often somber meditation which clearly reflects his own situation as a tortured prisoner awaiting death in solitary confinement. At the beginning of the poem, the narrator, as indicated by his isolation and deep “shivering” cold, appears as a lost or misguided soul clearly in need of spiritual direction. Thus the very purpose of the entire poem is to indicate the sudden and astonishing impact which the strange apparition of the burning Christ child has upon the narrator. The lost soul’s shock upon first seeing the suspended child is similar to that of the Bethlehem shepherds on Christmas night when the angel suddenly appears to them: “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone about them; and they were...

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