Robert Southwell Southwell, Robert - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Robert Southwell c. 1561-1595

English poet and religious writer.

Before he was martyred at age thirty-three for his activities as a Jesuit priest in Protestant England, Southwell earned a reputation among Catholics as a tireless missionary whose writings sought to provide comfort and to return believers to the church. While working as a missionary in England, he composed prose and poetry focused on the need for faith in times of persecution and the importance of repentance. Southwell's best-known works are the long poem Saint Peters Complaint (1595), the lyric poem “The Burning Babe” (1595), and the prose meditation Mary Magdalens Funeral Teares (1591). His devotional works are unusual for their emphasis on passionate love and the interior state of the believer and are generally regarded as important antecedents to the works of poets such as John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was admired by his contemporaries, including Ben Jonson, for his emotionally charged poetry, and he continues to be revered among Catholics as a saint and martyr.

Biographical Information

Southwell was born in Norfolk, England, around 1561, to a prominent Catholic family. In 1576 he was sent to France to be educated at the Jesuit school in Douai. He eventually gained admission to the Jesuit novitiate in Rome, and in 1584 he was ordained a priest. Two years later Southwell returned in secret to England as a missionary. At the time, many Catholics were leaving the country because of persecution by the Church of England, and Southwell's presence in England as a Jesuit missionary was considered treason. He spent six years performing his missionary work, hiding or using disguise to avoid arrest. He became chaplain to Anne, countess of Arundel and maintained communication with her husband, Philip, earl of Arundel, who was imprisoned for his faith. During this time Southwell also composed religious poetry and prose, some of which was published in secret. In 1591 he wrote An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie expressing his disagreement with the Church of England. He was arrested a year later at Uxendon Hall, Harrow, after he was betrayed by a young Catholic woman, Anne Bellamy. Bellamy had herself been arrested for her faith, and had succumbed to pressure from Richard Topcliffe, a notorious minister who made a career of persecuting Catholics. Southwell was examined thirteen times under torture at Topcliffe's home before being sent to the Tower of London, where he was confined to a dungeon without light or ventilation, and hung by his hands with metal straps. Southwell never renounced his Catholic faith, despite his sufferings. Eventually, Southwell's father sent a petition to Queen Elizabeth begging that his son receive more humane treatment, which she granted. After three years in the Tower Southwell was brought to trial for the capital crime of being a priest and a Jesuit. Found guilty, he was hanged for treason at Tyburn on February 21, 1595. He was canonized as a saint in 1970.

Major Works

Southwell began writing poetry in Latin while studying for the priesthood in Rome. Most of his English works were composed between his return to England in 1586 and his capture in 1592. Scholars have had difficulty dating his poetry, while the dates of his prose works are fairly clear. His first full-length English composition, An Epistle of Comfort, to the Reuerend Priestes (1587), began as a series of letters written to the imprisoned Earl of Arundel. The sixteen chapters of the work offer comfort to those persecuted for their beliefs and chastise their persecutors as well as those who have lapsed from their faith. Mary Magdalens Funeral Teares, a meditation on Mary Magdalen's intense feelings and experiences after discovering Jesus's empty tomb, was published in 1591. The Triumphs over Death composed in 1591 and published in 1595, is an elegy on death addressed to Arundel to console him after the premature death of his half-sister. An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie was a reply to a 1591 proclamation that declared that Catholics were being punished purely for political and not religious reasons. In this work Southwell denies the claims made in the proclamation and argues for Catholics' right to humane treatment. One of Southwell's most popular publications was the handbook A Short Rule of Good Life (c. 1596-97), which contains advice to lay persons about how to live as a Christian. Although none of Southwell's English poems were published during his lifetime, many of them likely circulated in manuscript. In 1595, shortly after his death, fifty-two of his lyrics and his long poem Saint Peters Complaint, were collected in a volume. Another volume of short poems appeared later in the same year under the title Moeoniae. Saint Peters Complaint, written in 132 six-line stanzas, is a dramatic monologue spoken by Saint Peter after his betrayal of Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiphus. The poem explores the themes of contrition and repentance. Southwell's shorter poetry is also devoted to Christian subjects, explaining humanity's responsibility to respond to revelation with love and atonement. The best known of Southwell's fifty-seven surviving lyrics is “The Burning Babe,” a poem on the Nativity in sixteen lines in which the infant Jesus is depicted as literally burning with a love so intense that even the tears of sorrow he weeps at humanity's rejection of him cannot extinguish its fire. Other well-known poems include “A Vale of Tears,” a look at the conscience-ridden soul; “Christs Bloody Sweat,” about Jesus's agony in Gethsemane; “New Prince, New Pomp,” about the birth of Jesus; and “Upon the Image of Death,” a meditation on death that focuses on the inner state of the narrator.

Critical Reception

During his life Southwell's works were published anonymously or circulated in manuscript among a small circle of Catholic believers, but he achieved fame as a writer and religious leader nonetheless. Later, even though Southwell was regarded as a criminal by the authorities, his works began to be sold openly by booksellers. It is likely that William Shakespeare read and imitated Southwell, and Ben Jonson declared that he would gladly have forfeited many of his own poems to have written “The Burning Babe.” For several decades after Southwell's death, his works were widely read and praised for their precision of language, beautiful rhythms, and combination of passion and intellectual analysis. Like many minor poets of the sixteenth century, Southwell's reputation throughout succeeding centuries was overshadowed by that of such masters as Shakespeare and Jonson as well as the great seventeenth-century English devotional poets John Donne and George Herbert. Modern scholarship of Southwell can be said to start in 1935, when Pierre Janelle offered a comprehensive examination of Southwell's life and writing, emphasizing his Catholic humanism and Jesuit neoclassicism. In 1954 Louis Martz, in a critical treatise that argued that seventeenth-century English religious poetry drew its distinctive qualities from spiritual exercises, included what is now regarded as a seminal work of Southwell scholarship. In his essay Martz compared Southwell's work with that of Herbert and Donne and claimed that Southwell anticipated many of the themes and concerns found in later writers, but that his poetry shows him struggling to express these ideas in lyrical fashion. Much subsequent criticism of Southwell's poetry has been indebted to Martz and his assessment of the meditative structure of the poet's verse. Many critics have concentrated on the use of emotion in Southwell's poetry and its themes of contrition and repentance. While most scholars acknowledge the emotional power of the poem “The Burning Babe,” there is general agreement that Southwell's verse is uneven, that some poems are awkward, melodramatic, and unconvincing, while others are written with great simplicity, power, and clarity of thought. In general, modern critics have concentrated on Southwell's poetry, probably because of its more universal appeal; the prose works tend to cover topical events whose details might be lost on modern readers. Nevertheless, Southwell's prose is generally considered to be of consistently high quality, and some critics have maintained that his lucid, well-reasoned arguments and precise language place him among the pioneers of English prose writing. While a few critics have claimed that Southwell's status as a martyr and poet is exaggerated, he is widely regarded as an important historical figure whose poetry at its best presents religious ideas in beautiful and passionate form, and whose prose writings provide insights on the experiences and difficulties faced by Catholics in Protestant England.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Quaerimoniae (poetry) 1578

An Epistle of Comfort, to the Reuerend Priestes, & to the Laye Sort Restrayned in Durance (prose) 1587

Mary Magdalens Funeral Teares (prose) 1591

The Triumphs over Death; or, A Consolatorie Epistle (prose) 1591

An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie (prose) c. 1591-92

*Moeoniae; or, Certaine Excellent Poems and Spirituall Hymnes: Omitted in the Last Impression of Peters Complaint (poetry) 1595

*Saint Peters Complaint, with Other Poemes (poetry) 1595

A Short Rule of Good Life. Newly Set Forth According to the Authours Direction before His Death (prose) c. 1596-97

The Complete Poems of Robert Southwell [edited by Alexander B. Grosart] (poetry) 1872

A Hundred Meditations on the Love of God [translator] (prose) 1873

Exercitia et Devotiones [The Spiritual Exercises and Devotions of Blessed Robert Southwell, S.J.; edited by J.-M. De Buck and translated by P. E. Hallett] (prose) 1931

The Poems of Robert Southwell [edited by James H. McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown] (poetry) 1967

Two Letters and Short Rules of a Good Life [edited by Brown] (prose and letters) 1973

*These works collect poems written by Southwell between 1586 and 1592.

Pierre Janelle (essay date 1935)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Janelle, Pierre. “The Earlier Prose Works.” In Robert Southwell, the Writer: A Study in Religious Inspiration, pp. 173-205. London: Sheed and Ward, 1935.

[In the following excerpt, Janelle compares Southwell's Mary Magdalens Funeral Teares with the Italian original, praising the emotional force and literary craftsmanship of the translation, and also comments on the neglected Epistle of Comfort.]

A considerable portion of Southwell's work is made up of translations, adaptations and imitations. This may to some extent mean that he lacked self-confidence; but the chief reason is that the directions of his superiors did not require the creation of an...

(The entire section is 9782 words.)

Helen C. White (essay date February 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: White, Helen C. “Southwell: Metaphysical and Baroque.” Modern Philology 61, no. 2 (February 1964): 159-68.

[In this essay, White argues that Southwell's poetry develops feeling through reiteration and that his techniques are more in line with Baroque than Metaphysical style.]

One of the liveliest of the continuing discussions of seventeenth-century poetry concerns the nature of the Baroque. In a certain sense this discussion may even be said to have taken the place of the earlier discussion of the metaphysical. That there is a connection between the Baroque and the metaphysical, most critics would agree. But, in general, it may be said that we are more apt...

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Nancy Pollard Brown (essay date 1967)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pollard Brown, Nancy. “General Introduction.” In The Poems of Robert Southwell, S.J., edited by James H. McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown, pp. xv-xxxiv. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1967.

[In the essay which follows, Brown situates and examines Southwell's works in the context of his life and spiritual activities.]

The death of Robert Southwell at Tyburn on 21 February (O.S.) 1595 was at once the end of his work as Mission priest and the beginning of a wider public interest in his literary achievement. His life in the Society of Jesus had been dedicated to the Roman Catholic cause in England; the prose and poetry he wrote in English had been...

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Peter M. Daly (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Daly, Peter M. “Southwell's ‘Burning Babe’ and the Emblematic Practice.” Wascana Review 3, no. 2 (1968): 29-44.

[In the following essay, Daly maintains that the imagery of “The Burning Babe” is best understood in light of the emblematic tradition, familiar to seventeenth-century readers.]


As I in hoarie Winters night stood shivering in the snowe,
Surpris'd I was with sodaine heate, which made my hart to glowe;
And lifting up a fearefull eye, to view what fire was neere,
A prettie Babe all burning bright did in the ayre appeare;
Who, scorched with excessive heate, such floods of teares did shed, (5)
As though his floods...

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Joseph D. Scallon (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Scallon, Joseph D. “‘Into a Maine of Teares’: The Poetry of Reform.” In The Poetry of Robert Southwell, S.J., pp. 151-219. Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universitat Salzburg, 1975.

[In the following excerpt of an essay originally published in 1968, Scallon analyzes Saint Peters Complaint to illustrate the characteristic style of Southwell's poems on the subject of repentance.]

The research by which textual scholars have established the several stages in the composition of Saint Peters Complaint is too involved to be reproduced here, but a summary of their conclusions may be helpful. Luigi Tansillo's Le Lagrime...

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Carol A. Schten (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Schten, Carol A. “Southwell's ‘Christs Bloody Sweat’: A Meditation on the Mass.” English Miscellany 20 (1969): 75-80.

[In the essay which follows, Schten argues that “Christs Bloody Sweat” is not about Christ's agony in Gethsemane but is a meditation on Calvary, Christ's sacrifice, and the Eucharist.]

In her recent edition of Robert Southwell's Poems, Nancy Pollard Brown identifies “Christs bloody sweat” as part of a “Gethsemane sequence”1. However, despite its title, “Christs Bloody sweat” is not a meditation on Christ's agony in Gethsemane and is incorrectly linked with “Sinnes heavie loade” and “Christs...

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Karen E. Batley (essay date September 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Batley, Karen E. “Martyrdom in Sixteenth-Century English Jesuit Verse.1Unisa English Studies 26, no. 2 (September 1988): 1-6.

[In the essay below, Batley discusses Southwell's writings concerning imprisonment and death at the scaffold.]

The sixteenth-century recusants, so called because they refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the English sovereign (L. recusare, to refuse), or to attend the services of the Church of England, are responsible for a remarkable body of verse and prose. Little known only because the writers represent a minority voice at a time when Protestantism was the informing principle of the day, it consists of...

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Karen E. Batley (essay date September 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Batley, Karen E. “Southwell's ‘Christs Bloody Sweat’: A Jesuit Meditation on Gethsemane.” Unisa English Studies 30, no. 2 (September 1992): 1-7.

[In the following essay, Batley claims that the critic Caroline Schten's 1969 essay misreads “Christ's Bloody Sweat,” arguing that it is indeed a Jesuit meditational poem on Christ in Gethsemane.]

Robert Southwell (1561-1595), exiled in Europe amongst the Catholic emigrés in order to avoid the religious persecutions in England, finally returned to his country as an ordained Jesuit in 1586. Imbued with the doctrines and dogma of the new Counter-Reformation Catholic Church, the creation of the Council of...

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F. W. Brownlow (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Brownlow, F. W. “Southwell's Prose: The Second Stage.” In Robert Southwell, pp. 50-72. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

[In this essay, Brownlow discusses Southwell's last three prose works, which he claims are more sober in tone than earlier works despite their use of similar themes and imagery.]


The three works considered in this chapter, The Triumphs over Death, A Short Rule of Good Life, and An Humble Supplication to Her Majesty, all date from late 1591, when Southwell had been in England more than five years. Since the style and tone of Southwell's prose varies with the...

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Gary Kuchar (essay date March 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kuchar, Gary. “Southwell's ‘A Vale of Tears’: A Psychoanalysis of Form.” Mosaic 34, no. 1 (March 2001): 107-20.

[In the following essay, Kuchar offers a psychoanalytic reading of “A Vale of Tears.”]

Contemporary psychoanalytic discussions of subject formation attribute immense importance to processes of mourning. This concern with mourning in the work of post-Lacanian theorists, most notably Judith Butler and Julia Kristeva, is not simply a reflection on how one negotiates loss throughout one's life but more primarily how the subject is itself constituted by mourning: formed, that is, by and through loss. From this perspective, mourning is not...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


King, John N. “Recent Studies in Southwell.” English Literary Renaissance 13, no. 2 (spring 1983): 221-27.

Annotated bibliography of primary and secondary readings, organized by discussions of general topics and biographical studies, selected topics, individual poems, and primary texts.


Devlin, Christopher. The Life of Robert Southwell, Poet and Martyr. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956, 367 p.

Biography that focuses on Southwell as a person rather than as a writer.

Hood, Christobel M. “Robert Southwell: Priest, Poet, Prisoner.”...

(The entire section is 563 words.)