Themes and Meanings

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“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 sore afraid” (Luke 2:9).

Then, when the burning babe has admonished all men (including the narrator) for not apprehending the love and sacrifice of God, he further explains his ability to burn away (and wash away) all human sin. This great and divine power had been foretold by the angel Gabriel when he spoke to Mary of her coming child: “For He shall save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Finally, at the end of the poem, when the babe vanishes, the awestruck narrator “callèd unto mind that it was Christmas day.” Thus, the lost and lonely soul has clearly been awakened by his miraculous experience as he recalls the great significance of the day. Like Dante in The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), the narrator has now been directed back to the right and true path.

Robert Southwell sincerely believed that poetry could be used for higher, more spiritual ends, and he was determined to show “how well verse and virtue suit together” (The Life of Robert Southwell, Poet and Martyr, Christopher Devlin, 1956). While awaiting his execution (he was hanged at Tyburn on February 21, 1595), Southwell proved his convictions by writing his small masterpiece, “The Burning Babe.” In this most unusual and powerful of all Christmas poems, Robert Southwell, who was canonized in 1970, explains that the miracle of Christmas should inspire all men to recall the ultimate miracle of redemption and salvation.

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