Robert Southwell wrote religious poetry with a didactic purpose. In the prose preface to a manuscript, addressed to his cousin, he says that poets who write of the “follies and fayninges” of love have discredited poetry to the point that “a Poet, a Lover, and a Liar, are by many reckoned but three words of one signification.” Poetry, however, was used for parts of Scripture, and may be used for hymns and spiritual sonnets. He has written his poetry to give others an example of subject matter, he says, and he hopes that other more skillful poets will follow his example. He flies from “prophane conceits and fayning fits” and applies verse to virtue, as David did. Perhaps his distaste for the stylized love poetry of his time explains the absence of sonnets in his writing. Although Southwell’s purpose in writing was didactic, he was often more emotional than purely intellectual. His poems are seldom tranquil. They tend to startle through his use of the unexpected, the fantastic, and the grotesque, and may thus be described as baroque. Southwell is also linked to the baroque movement in his use of Italian models and such themes as weeping, anticipating the seventeenth century Roman Catholic poet Richard Crashaw.
As might be expected, death is a recurring theme in his poetry, yet he makes the theme universal rather than personal, for his purpose was instructive and oral rather than merely self-expressive. In “Upon the Image of Death,” for example, he speaks of what is apparently a memento mori kind of picture that he often looks at, but he still does not really believe that he must die; historical personages and people he has known have all died, and yet it is difficult to think that he will die. There are personal touches, such as references to his gown, his knife, and his chair, but all are reminders to him and to all of inevitable death, “And yet my life amend not I.” The poem’s simplicity and universality give it a proverbial quality.
His most inspired poems were about birth rather than death, the birth of the Christ child. In part 6 of “The Sequence on the Virgin Mary and Christ,” “The Nativitie of Christ,” he uses the image of the bird that built the nest being hatched in it, and ends with the image of the Christ child as hay, the food for the beasts that human beings have become through sin. His image of Christ is often that of a child, as in “A Child My Choice,” where he stresses the superior subject he praises in the poem, compared with the foolish praise of what “fancie” loves. While he loves the Child, he lives in him, and cannot live wrongly. In the middle two stanzas of this four-stanza poem, he uses a great deal of alliteration, parallelism, and antithesis to convey the astonishing nature of this Child, who is young, yet wise; small, yet strong; and man, yet God. At the end of the poem, he sees Christ weeping, sighing, and panting while his angels sing. Out of his tears, sighs, and throbs buds a joyful spring. At the end of the poem, he prays that this Child will help him in correcting his faults and will direct his death. The prayer was of course meant to be didactic, but it assumes a very personal meaning because of Southwell’s manner of death. The themes of the Nativity and of death are thus artistically linked.
“A vale of teares”
As Vincent Barry Leitch has stated, the Incarnation serves as a paradigm of God’s love for human beings and signifies God’s sanctification of human life. There is thus a strong sense of the divine in human life in most of Southwell’s poems, yet some of the poems are referred to as “desolation poems” because this sense of God in human life is absent. Sin is prevalent, and the sinner feels remorse. In “A vale of teares,” for example, God seems to be absent, leaving people alone to work things out for themselves. The poem is heavily descriptive, describing a valley of the Alps and painting a picture of a dreary scene that is in keeping with a sense of loneliness and desolation. It is wild, mountainous, windy, and thunderous, and although the green of the pines and moss suggests hope, hope quails when one looks at the cliffs. The poem ends with an apostrophe to Deep Remorse to possess his breast, and bidding Delights adieu. The poem has been linked to the conventional love lyric in which the lover, in despair, isolates himself from the world, but it has also been linked to the Ignatian Exercises of the Jesuits.
Saint Peter’s Complaint
Another poem on the theme of isolation and remorse is the long dramatic poem Saint Peter’s Complaint, comprising 132 stanzas of six lines each, based on an Italian work by Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568), Le Lagrime di San Pietro (the tears of Saint Peter). Southwell wrote a translation of part of Tansillo’s poem, titling it, “Peeter Playnt,” and two other poems, “S. Peters complaint,” a poem of eleven stanzas, and “Saint Peters Complaynte,” a poem of twelve stanzas. These three apparently represent stages in the composition of the long poem. In the translation, there is an objective rather than a first-person point of view, and Peter’s denying Christ was an action in the immediate past in the courtyard, while reference is made to the suffering Peter will experience in the future. In each of the three original versions, Peter is the speaker and the time and place are indefinite. Much of the material in “Saint Peters Complaynte” is incorporated in the long poem. The uneven quality of the long poem has caused Janelle to assign it to an early period of experimentation, but McDonald and Brown see it as an unpolished work left unfinished when Southwell...
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