Robert Southwell’s reputation as a poet in his own time is difficult to determine, since he was a priest in hiding and a martyr for his Roman Catholic faith. It is natural that the five manuscript compilations of his verses do not name the author, and that the two printed volumes, both published in the year of his execution, likewise do not name the author; one of them, however, gives his initials. The publishers may have thought that readers would associate the poems with Southwell, who was of much interest at the time, although the government tried to keep his trial secret. Early references to his verse, however, with a single exception, do not indicate knowledge of authorship. Southwell’s name did not appear in an edition until 1620.
The musical quality of his verse is remarkable, considering that he almost forgot his native English during his long education abroad and had to relearn it when he returned to England as a priest in hiding. He has been described by Pierre Janelle as the “leading Catholic writer of the Elizabethan age,” and one who might have developed into one of the greatest English writers if it were not for his death at the age of thirty-four. His best-known poem is “The Burning Babe,” and Ben Jonson is reputed to have said that if he had written that poem, he would have been content to destroy many of his.
Brownlow, F. W. Robert Southwell. New York: Twayne, 1996. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Southwell. Includes bibliographic references and an index.
Caraman, Philip. A Study in Friendship: Saint Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995. This slim volume from religion scholar Caraman contains a bibliography and an index.
Deane, John F. From the Marrow-Bone: The Religion of Poetry—The Poetry of Religion. Blackrock, Ireland: Columba Press, 2008. Part 1 contains essays by the author on a variety of aspects of religion and poetry, and part 2 contains essays on various poets, including Southwell.
Janelle, Pierre. Robert Southwell the Writer: A Study in Religious Inspiration. 1935. Reprint. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: Paul J. Appel, 1971. Janelle’s biography—the first three chapters of the book—remains the standard account of the life of Southwell. The other chapters concerning Jesuit influence, Petrarchan origins, and Southwell’s place among his contemporaries have stood the test of time. Contains an extensive bibliography.
Moseley, D. H. Blessed Robert Southwell. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1957. A sympathetic biography drawn from late sixteenth century writings and records, which provides an understanding of the cultural, religious, and political climate in which Southwell lived and wrote. Supplemented by a chronological select bibliography of Southwell criticism.
Pilarz, Scott R. Robert Southwell and the Mission of Literature, 1561-1595: Writing Reconciliation. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. Pilarz examines Southwell as a Catholic writer and from the standpoint of his religious mission.
Scallon, Joseph D. The Poetry of Robert Southwell, S. J. Salzburg: Institute for English Language and Literature, 1975. Scallon’s monograph provides chapters on Southwell’s biography, his short poems (particularly those concerning Christ and the Virgin Mary), and the poems on repentance. Saint Peter’s Complaint, Southwell’s best poem, receives extensive analysis. Contains a substantial bibliography.
Sweeney, Anne R. Robert Southwell: Snow in Arcadia—Redrawing the English Lyric Landscape, 1586-1595. New York: Manchester University Press, 2006. Sweeney, the coeditor of a collection of Southwell’s poetry, examines Southwell in his role as a lyric poet.