Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Burning Babe

There is something of a resurgence of interest in St Robert Southwell at the moment, with his Collected Poems and a major critical study (reviewed here) being published recently. Both books build upon the solid foundations laid by Alison Shell in Catholicism, controversy, and the English literary imagination, 1558-1660 and what they demonstrate is that there is clearly a lot more to Southwell than the much-anthologised 'The Burning Babe'. In later posts this Advent I shall draw attention to other Southwell poems that could be used in the classroom but I'm going to start with 'The Burning Babe'. It may be widely anthologised but that's partly because it is a great poem:

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

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