“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 often refuse to undertake a true and necessary commitment to Christ’s warming love.
Then, in lines 9 through 12, the love of God is portrayed not only as warming, but also as purifying: “My faultless breast the furnace is” and the “metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilèd souls.” Through this extraordinary metaphor (Jesus as a purifying furnace), the Christ child reminds the narrator that the great news of the Incarnation is not only that God is among us, which is extraordinary enough, but also that this Incarnation also initiates a redemption through which all men can purify themselves before God.
In the poem’s final four lines, the Christ child reinforces the furnace imagery with a related metaphor of purification and cleansing: the promise to all men to “melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.” With these words, the burning babe suddenly vanishes from sights and the amazed narrator immediately recalls “that it was Christmas day.” Thus the poem, through the Christ child, reminds the narrator (and the reader) that Christmas and the Redemption cannot be separated and that the best awakening that one could possibly have each Christmas is to remember that the purpose of the Incarnation is one’s personal salvation.
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...
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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 bookShivering 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 bush of Exodus 3:2, the pillar of fire in Exodus 13:21, and the tongues of fire in Acts 2:3-4) and the nature of sacrifice (as in the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis and in the many Old Testament burnt offerings to God).
In the poem, the child explains that he burns with a purifying love that burns away men’s sins: “My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns.” Thus, through the Passion of Jesus (which included the crowning with thorns), this furnace will consume man’s sins. Although divine justice demands retribution for human sin, God’s mercy “blows the coals,” and the resultant fire is Christ’s love. As a result of this extraordinary love, “men’s defilèd souls” can now be transformed “to their good.”
The poem “The Burning Babe” is a marvelous blend of many striking poetic elements: haunting rhythm and rhyme, powerful language, sharp images, intellectual complexity, and fervid spirituality. It is its very strange narrative and its memorable central metaphor, however, that make the poem more powerfully effective than the many other interesting, but less memorable, nativity poems which have been written by a wide range of English poets, including John Donne, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and William Blake.