The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The great Elizabethan poet Ben Jonson once said that if he could have written “The Burning Babe,” he would have been glad to destroy many of his own best poems. There are many reasons this poem is so affecting, but the strangeness of the narrative and the unusual central metaphor are two of the poem’s most memorable aspects.

The very incident itself—the encounter with an enflamed Christ child suspended in the air—is both a stunning and miraculous apparition. The babe’s strong admonition and unusual language increase the peculiar and marvelous aspects of the narrative. Finally, when the narrator’s conscience has been awakened, the babe simply vanishes. Thus Southwell, by combining the traditional “strangeness” of early folk ballads with the miraculous events recorded in hagiographies (lives of the saints), creates a scene that is both mystical and unforgettable.

Even more amazing, however, than the action of the poem is its central metaphor of the infant Jesus as a furnace, explained when the burning babe first appears: “ ‘Alas!’ quoth he, ‘but newly born in fiery heats I fry.’ ” As critic Linda Ching Sledge points out, in her book Shivering Babe, Victorious Lord: The Nativity in Poetry and Art (1981), this powerful image of the newly born Christ child literally enflamed in a nonconsuming fire clearly recalls the primary two symbolisms of fire imagery in the Bible: the presence of God (as in the burning...

(The entire section is 444 words.)