Monday, December 14, 2020

Robert Southwell*

Robert Southwell (1561―1595) is an English poet who was first educated in France, and then joined the Jesuits in Rome. In 1586 he returned as an illegal missionary to Protestant England, becoming the domestic chaplain to Anne Howard, whose husband the Earl of Arundel was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Once Southwell himself was captured, he was tortured by authorities trying to learn of the activities of other Catholics. He was later placed in solitary confinement in the Tower of London for over two years, before being executed for treason.

Southwell wrote exclusively religious poetry, seeking to turn readers’ attention away from pagan and classical themes. His literary significance at the time of his death is reflected in his influence on such writers as Donne, Herbert and Crashaw, and through several allusions to his work in Shakespeare’s plays.

The following poem plays with the paradoxes of the Word who made the world coming into the world as a newborn babe.

“The Nativity of Christ”

Behold the father is his daughter’s son,
The bird that built the nest is hatched therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The Word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.
O dying souls, behold your living spring;
O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace;
Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring;
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace.
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs.
Gift better than himself God doth not know;
Gift better than his God no man can see.
This gift doth here the giver given bestow;
Gift to this gift let each receiver be.
God is my gift, himself he freely gave me;
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.
Man altered was by sin from man to beast;
Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh.
Now God is flesh and lies in manger pressed
As hay, the brutest sinner to refresh.
O happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew.

*This is the second Kingdom Poets post about Richard Southwell: first post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.