Robert Southwell Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Robert Southwell was born toward the end of 1561, according to evidence gathered from his admittance to the Society of Jesus and from his trial. His family was prosperous, and he spent his boyhood at Horsham St. Faith, Norfolk.

In 1576, when he was about fifteen, he entered the English College of the Jesuit school at Douai; like many young Catholics of that period, he was sent to the Continent for his later education. He studied at the Jesuit College of Clermont in Paris for a short time for his greater safety, returning to Douai in 1577, the year in which he applied to enter the Jesuit novitiate at Tournai. He was at first rejected but was accepted into the novitiate in Rome in 1578, where he was a student at the Roman College and tutor and precept of studies at the English College. Forbidden to speak English, he spoke Latin and Italian, becoming very fluent in the latter and reading a great deal of Italian literature. He wrote Latin poetry, including religious epics, elegies, and epigrams.

His poetry in English was written during his mission to England, from his return in July, 1586, to his arrest in June, 1592. He was stationed in London, working under a superior, the Reverend Henry Garnet. Southwell occupied a house in London and provided lodgings for priests, meeting those coming into the country. He corresponded with the Reverend Claudius Aquaviva, general of the Society of Jesus, giving him reports of the persecution. He received much help from the countess of Arundel,...

(The entire section is 613 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Robert Southwell, while now known mostly for the highly anthologized lyric “The Burning Babe,” is important in the history of English poetry for anticipating the mode of religious poetry that would prevail in the following century. A Jesuit priest in Elizabethan England, where practicing Catholicism was a capital crime, Southwell expressed his faith in prose and poetry until the queen’s pursuivants made him a martyr to that faith.

Southwell’s early education was in Douai, where many English Catholics found refuge and trained for the priesthood. His later studies at Paris (probably after 1575) placed him under the tutelage of the English Jesuit Thomas Darbyshire, in whose footsteps Southwell followed by joining the Jesuit order in 1580. He was sent to Rome as prefect of studies, a precocious appointment for a young man still in his teens. He was ordained in 1584. Because his early education took place on the Continent, the young Southwell had trouble remembering his English, and it has been suggested that his earliest poetry, which consists of translations from Spanish religious verse, was undertaken at least partly to strengthen his command of English.

During this time in Rome, or perhaps shortly after in England, Southwell wrote one of his most famous prose works, Mary Magdalens Funerall Teares, although the work was not published until 1591. Its prose style is very rich, almost poetic in its rhythmic effects. Many modern critics have a pronounced distaste for such a style, known as euphuistic. It is marked by heavy use of balance and parallelism, rhythmic repetitions, elaborate conceits, and appeals to emotion.

In the summer of 1586 Southwell was sent to England to be part of the “English mission” of the Jesuit order. Southwell remained in disguise and often stayed only a step or two ahead of the authorities, called pursuivants, sent to apprehend Catholic priests. While on the run in this way Southwell composed a second euphuistic prose piece, An Epistle of Comfort. This...

(The entire section is 835 words.)