samedi 21 février 2015

Saint ROBERT SOUTHWELL, prêtre et martyr


Saint Robert Southwell, prêtre et martyr

Aristocrate né en 1561 dans le Norfolk, Robert est envoyé au collège en exil de Douai, bien que son père se soit adapté à la nouvelle situation religieuse anglaise. De là, il entre au collège de Clermont, à Paris où il rencontre des jésuites parmi lesquels Thomas Darbyshire. Il demande à entrer dans la Compagnie de Jésus, mais comme on diffère de le recevoir, il se rend à pied à Rome où il est admis dans la Compagnie en 1578. Il y est ordonné en 1584 et, malgré son jeune âge, envoyé pour la mission anglaise dès 1586. Pendant six ans et sachant bien qu’il risque la peine de mort, il déploie un ministère très actif à partir de Londres, diffusant anonymement lettres et poèmes qui exercèrent une réelle influence sur la littérature de l’époque. Echappant sans cesse à la vigilance de ceux qui le traquent, il devient une légende vivante. Finalement découvert en juin 1592, il est incarcéré à la tour de Londres puis transféré à la prison de Newgate. Il est si cruellement torturé pendant trois ans que son père implore vainement la mort de son fils auprès de la reine Elisabeth. Enfin condamné à mort le 20 février 1595, il est conduit le lendemain à Tyburn Hill où il est autorisé à parler à la foule : il déclare alors prier pour le salut de la reine et de son pays. Il est pendu alors qu’il recommande son âme à Dieu et lorsque sa tête est brandie devant la foule, personne n’ose crier "traître !", selon l’usage.
SOURCE : http://www.paroisse-saint-aygulf.fr/index.php/prieres-et-liturgie/saints-par-mois/icalrepeat.detail/2015/02/21/12891/-/saint-robert-southwell-pretre-et-martyr

Saint Robert Southwell

prêtre de la Compagnie de Jésus et martyr en Angleterre ( 1595)

Né en 1561 dans le Norfolk en Angleterre, poète jésuite ayant étudié en France et à Rome, ordonné en 1585, il devient préfet des études du collège anglais de Rome. De retour en Angleterre en 1586 comme missionnaire au moment de la persécution, il est arrêté en 1592, torturé, il est jugé en 1595 et condamné à être pendu à Tyburg.

Canonisé le 25 octobre 1970 par le pape Paul VI pour représenter les catholiques martyrisés en Angleterre et au Pays de Galles entre 1535 et 1679.

À Londres, en 1595, saint Robert Southwell, prêtre de la Compagnie de Jésus et martyr. Après huit ans de ministère clandestin dans la ville et les alentours, auteur de divers ouvrages et de poésies spirituelles, il fut arrêté, emprisonné à la Tour de Londres, soumis au moins neuf fois à la torture et, après trois ans, condamné à mort comme prêtre et pendu à Tyburn.

Martyrologe romain


Saint Robert Southwell

Le P. Robert Southwell (1561-1595) était un des nombreux poètes anglais, mais aussi un des martyrs anglais les plus célèbres. Il a été exécuté pendant le règne de la reine Elisabeth I.

Il était né dans une famille aisée, et se rendit sur le continent pour étudier dans une école catholique. En mai 1576 il s’inscrivit au Collège Anglais de Douai en Flandre; plus tard il alla étudier à Paris où il fit la connaissance du P. jésuite Thomas Darbyshire. Southwell demanda d’entrer dans la Compagnie, mais il a été refusé, d’abord parce qu’il était trop jeune, et ensuite parce que le noviciat était fermé à cause de combats dans les environs. Avec une grande détermination le jeune anglais a marché jusqu’à Rome, où il a été accepté au noviciat de Sant Andrea en 1578. Il étudia la philosophie et la théologie au Collège Romain et fut ordonné en 1584. Pendant les 2 années qui suivirent, il fut préfet des études au Collège Anglais à Rome et aida à préparer des hommes à devenir prêtres pour l’Angleterre. Finalement il a été désigné pour la mission dans son pays natal et quitta Rome le 8 mai 1586 en même temps que le P. Garnet.

Les deux jésuites débarquèrent sur une côte isolée, pour éviter l’arrestation dans un port. Le P. Southwell fut désigné pour exercer son ministère dans et autour de Londres. Il vécut d’abord dans la famille Vaux et ensuite chez la Comtesse d’Arundel, dont le mari Sir Philip Howard était détenu dans la Tour parce qu’il était catholique. Le ministère du P. Southwell comprenait aussi la visite d’une douzaine de prisons situées dans la ville et d’aider des prêtres qui venaient de rentrer au pays. Quand le P. Garnet, son compagnon de voyage, arriva aussi à Londres, le P. Southwell se mit à visiter les catholiques des comtés des environs. Il aida aussi à imprimer des catéchismes catholiques et d’autres livres de dévotion, imprimés sur une presse secrète, créée par le P. Garnet; c’était la seule source de littérature catholique dont disposaient les catholiques anglais. Le P. Southwell rassembla plusieurs lettres qu’il avait écrites à Sir Philip pour l’encourager, et elles ont été publiées sous le titre de «Une lettre de réconfort»

Pendant 6 années de ministère fertile il put travailler, jusqu’au jour où il a été trahi par une femme catholique, qui avait été forcée de tendre un piège au jésuite. Il s’agit de Anne Bellamy qui avait été emprisonnée parce qu’elle refusait d’assister à des services protestants. Elle avait été rendue enceinte par un certain Richard Topcliffe, un chasseur de prêtres connu pour torturer ses prisonniers. Topcliffe lui promit de l’épouser et d’obtenir le pardon pour sa famille si elle réussissait à convaincre le P. Southwell de se rendre à un endroit où un piège lui serait tendu. Quand elle sortit de prison, elle écrivit au P. Southwell pour lui demander de la rencontrer à la maison de ses parents. Le P. Southwell s’y rendit, pensant qu’elle désirait recevoir les sacrements. Au lieu de cela, il y était attendu par Topcliffe et ses hommes, mais il réussit à se glisser dans une chambre secrète avant qu’ils ne réussissent à s’emparer de lui, mais finalement il se livra plutôt que d’impliquer la famille.

Topcliffe se réjouit grandement d’avoir capturé le P. Southwell, qu’il considérait comme la plus grande prise de sa carrière. Celui-ci fut amené enchaîné à la résidence de Topcliffe près de la prison de Gatehouse et enfermé dans la chambre à torture privée que Topcliffe y possédait. Plusieurs jours de tortures cruelles ne purent forcer le P. Southwell à révéler un seul nom d’un catholique ou d’un prêtre. Il resta ferme dans son refus, malgré 13 séances de tortures; finalement ses bourreaux l’enfermèrent parmi les indigents, où il était exposé au froid, à la faim et à la soif. Son père réussit à lui rendre visite dans cette prison des indigents et fut horrifié à la vue de l’état dans lequel se trouvait son fils. Il supplia la reine de le traiter comme le gentleman qu’il était : soit de le relâcher, soit de le condamner à mort. La reine autorisa son transfert à la Tour, où il était mieux traité, mais ne pouvait recevoir aucune visite. Il continua, par ailleurs, à écrire des poèmes qui exprimaient ses sentiments les plus profonds et qui furent rassemblé plus tard et publiés sous le titre de ‘La plainte de St Pierre’.

Pendant 2½ ans le P. Southwell a enduré l’isolement de son emprisonnement, finalement il adressa une pétition à Lord Burghley pour que, soit on le relâche, soit on lui autorise des visites, soit on le juge. On lui accorda la dernière demande et il a été jugé le 20 février 1595 à Westminster Hall. Il admit sans peine qu’il était prêtre catholique, mais nia toute participation à un complot contre la reine. On le jugea coupable de haute trahison et il a été exécuté le jour suivant. Pour le trajet de 3 heures jusqu’à Tyburn, on l’attacha à une claie et le traîna par les rues jusqu’au gibet. Comme le nœud coulant de la corde était mal placé il ne mourut pas de suite quand la charrette s’éloigna. Le bourreau eut pitié de lui et se pendit à ses pieds pour terminer son agonie. Il avait 34 ans, et fut ensuite décapité et écartelé.

D'autres martyrs d’Angleterre


Initialement regroupé et édité par: Tom Rochford, SJ
Traducteur: Guy Verhaegen




Robert Southwell, SJ M (RM)

Born at Horsham Saint Faith's, Norfolk, England, in 1561 or 1562; died at Tyburn, London, England, February 21, 1595; beatified in 1929; canonized on October 25, 1970, by Pope Paul VI as one of the 40 representative martyrs of England and Wales.

The Church has been built on the blood of martyrs--the living stones. Before there were cathedrals, there were the catacombs; since then objects of value have been piled about our altars, but the most precious is contained beneath each altar in the mandatory "tomb"--the shrine with the relics of a martyr--and upon the tomb the chalice with the precious Blood of Christ. We would do well to recall the many previous Masses that were celebrated in haste and secrecy--for us, like the martyrs, each Mass might be the viaticum. Receive the Source of Life with joy, attention, and thanksgiving.

When King Henry VIII could not induce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, to allow their marriage to be declared invalid because she was his brother's widow, Henry declared himself head of the Church in England. He persuaded the Parliament to declare that it was high treason for anyone to deny Henry's right to this title. On this account monasteries were closed and Church property confiscated--both real and monetary, including the innumerable foundations designed to maintain schools for the people, who were largely illiterate. A long procession of saints and beati were executed under Henry VIII.

(Of course, we should always remember that Roman Catholics are not alone in being persecuted. While the English kings and queens hanged and quartered Catholics, Protestants were burned in France and Spain. There was the difference that Protestants in Spain and France were trying to destroy the ancient traditions of the people, while Catholicism in England did not show itself incompatible with the order of society.)

Robert Southwell's lineage included most of the country gentry of Suffolk and Norfolk, but his father Richard was born on the wrong side of the sheets though his grandfather, also Richard, did eventually marry Robert's grandmother, a poor relation of his first wife.

Richard Southwell, Sr., had been a courtier to Henry VIII and received his share of the booty from the pillaging of monasteries, including the ancient Benedictine priory of Horsham Saint Faith. Richard changed his political and religious affiliations a few times during the reigns of Edward and Mary of Scotland. The saint's father had married Queen Elizabeth's governess; thus, Richard Senior's grandson Robert was born in the old Benedictine priory.

Robert is the mystic among the English martyrs, though circumstances made him a man of action and bold adventure. Fire, sweetness, purity, and gentleness were features of Robert Southwell's nature.

Once as a child, he was stolen by gypsies, who were numerous in the great woods surrounding Saint Faith's. His nurse found him again. Robert referred to this misadventure often. "What had I remained with the gipsy? How abject, how void of all knowledge and reverence of God! In what shameful vices, in how great danger of infamy, in how certain danger of an unhappy death and eternal punishment!" On his return to England as a missionary, the first person he visited was his old nurse, whom he tried to lead back to the Roman Catholic Church.

His father sent him to Douai to be educated by the Jesuits, either because he was a Catholic at that time or because of the reputation of the order's schools. There Robert met John Cotton, who later operated a safehouse in London.

Robert was inspired with intense enthusiasm for the Society of Jesus and begged entry at once, though he was too young. He was bitterly disappointed, but on the feast of Saint Faith (fortuitously on October 17, 1578) he was received into the order in Rome as a novice. He spent his novitiate in Tournai, but took his vows and, in 1584, was ordained to the priesthood in Rome, where for a time he was prefect in the English College.

At this time he began to attract a good deal of attention by his poems. He corresponded with Mr. Parsons, the leader of the Jesuit mission in England. He was worried that many who had been faithful Catholics were now sliding into the Church of England to avoid the fine for every service from which they absented themselves. Many families held out until they were financially ruined; then they would attempt to make their way to the continent and live on alms.

Though Robert Southwell knew how his journey to England would end, with Father Henry Garnet, he returned in 1586 to serve among those Catholics who were still willing to venture life and welfare by hearing a Mass and receiving the Sacraments. Before his departure he wrote to the general of hte Jesuits, Claudius Acquaviva, "I address you, my Father, from the threshold of death, imploring the aid of your prayers . . . that I may either escape the death of the body for further use, or endure it with courage."
Most of the remaining Catholics were to be found in the countryside. Most were content to long for better days and hope that a priest could be smuggled into their sickroom before their deaths. On the other hand, among the actively militant there was a wonderful cohesion and a mutual helpfulness and affection that recalled the days of the primitive Church. But thes little congregations that assembled before dawn in a secret room of some remote manor house never knew if a traitor might be in their midst.

Southwell rode about the countryside in disguise, saying Mass, hearing confessions, celebrating marriages, baptizing, re-admitting apostates, giving the Sacraments to the dying. He even managed to visit Catholics in prison and say Mass there. Time after time he miraculously managed to elude his pursuers.

Much of Southwell's correspondence during this period has been preserved and provides many insights into the events and attitudes of hte period. These were hard times. In one letter he requests permission to consecrate chalices and altar slabs (usually reserved to the bishop)--so much had been taken away in the constant searching of the homes of Catholics that such things were becoming scarce.

His letters home also reveal Robert's anxiety about the salvation of his father and one of his brothers, Thomas. The soul of the poet is evident when he writes his brother: "Shrine not any longer a dead soul in a living body: bail reason out of senses' prison, that after so long a bondage in sin, you may enjoy your former liberty in God's Church, and free your thought from servile awe of uncertain perils. . . . Weigh with yourself at how easy a price you rate God, Whom you are content to sell for hte use of your substance. . . . Look if you can upon a crucifix without blushing; do not but count the five wounds of Christ once over without a bleeding conscience."

Thomas was won back to the faith and died in exile in the Netherlands. His father died in prison after Robert's martyrdom, but it is unknown whether he, too, suffered for the faith.

As chronicled in Robert's letters, the persecution intensified after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Captured Catholics used their trials in defense of the faith. Robert tried to remain at large for as long as possible by adopting disguises and using the alias of Mr. Cotton--a poor, unkempt, and socially awkward young man.

Robert was a priest in London from 1584 to 1592. About 1590, Robert Southwell became chaplain to Anne, countess of Arundel, wife of the imprisoned Saint Philip Howard, who was being told lies about her now-faithful husband. To Southwell, Earl Philip wrote from prison that his greatest sorrow was that he would never see his wife again. "I call Our Lord to witness that as no sin grieves me so much as my offenses to that party [Anne], so no worldly things makes me loather to depart hence than that I cannot live to make that party satisfaction, according to my most ardent and affectionate desire. Afflictio dat intellectum (affliction gives understanding)."

During the time that Fr. Southwell was concealed in Arundel House in London, he corresponded with Philip Howard because of their mutual affection for Anne Dacre and because of their shared faith and shared interest in poetry. Southwell holds a place in English literature as a religious poet. Ben Jonson remarked to Drummond that "Southwell was hanged, yet so he [Jonson] had written that piece of his 'The Burning Babe' he would have been content to destroy many of his." Many of Southwell's poems, apologetic tracts, and devotional books were published on a private printing press installed at Arundel House.

At Arundel House, the soon-to-be martyr also found himself often lost in mystical experiences that are later revealed in his poetry. There is an unforgettable power in his poetic image of Christ as the unwearied God throughout eternity supporting the earth on His fingertip and enclosing all creation in the hollow of His hand, but Who, in His humanity, breaks down and falls beneath the weight of a single person's sin.

Robert Southwell was betrayed by Anne Bellamy. After giving her absolution during her confinement with a family in Holborn, he told her that he would offer Mass in the secret room in her father Richard's home in Harrow on June 20, 1592. She reported this to Richard Topcliffe, one of the most notorious for hunting down priests. Robert Southwell was arrested while still wearing his vestments. Southwell was immediately tortured upon arrival at Topcliffe's Westminster home--for two days he was hung up by the wrists against a wall, so that he could barely touch the floor with the tips of his toes.
When he was at the point of death, his tormentors revived him, hung him up again, and prodded him to reveal the names of other priests and for information to condemn Lady Arundel. All he would confess was that he was a Jesuit priest. He gave no information, not even the color of the horse on which he had riden, that would allow them to find other Catholics. Southwell's steadfastness led several of the witnesses, including the Treasurer Sir Robert Cecil, to whisper that he must indeed be a saint.

He was taken from Topcliffe's house to a filthy cell in the Gatehouse and left for a month. His father, seeing him covered with lice, begged the queen to treat his son as the gentleman he was. She obliged by having Southwell moved to a cleaner cell and permitting his father to send him clean clothes and other necessities, including a Bible and the writings of Saint Bernard.

Robert Southwell was moved to the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned for three years and tortured 13 times (according to Cecil). Many of his poems on death, including "Saint Peter's Complaint," were written in the Tower. Not once was he given the opportunity to confess his sins or say Mass.

He was allowed only one visit--from his sister. Communication with Saint Philip Howard was limited to notes smuggled between their cells. Because Arundel's dog would sometimes follow the warder into Southwell's cell, the lieutenant of the Tower mocked that he supposed the dog had gone to get the priest's blessing. Howard replied, "Marry! it is no news for irrational creatures to seek blessings at the hands of holy men. Saint Jerome writes how those lions which had digged with their paws Saint Paul the Hermit's grave stood after waiting with their eyes upon Saint Antony expecting his blessing."

Finally, Southwell entreated Cecil to bring him to trial or permit him visitors. To which Cecil answered, "if he was in so much haste to be hanged, he should quickly have his desire." Shortly thereafter he was taken to Newgate Prison and placed in the underground dungeon called Limbo before being brought to trial at Westminster on February 20, 1595. He was condemned for being a priest. When the Lord Chief Justice Popham offered the services of an Anglican priest to prepare him for death, he declined saying that the grace ofGod would be more than sufficient for him.

Like many martyrs before him, Southwell drew the admiration of the crowds because he walked as though he whole being were filled with happiness at the prospect of being executed the next day. On the morrow, the tall, slight man of light brown hair and beard was taken to the "Tyburn Tree," a gallows, where the custom was for the condemned to be drive underneath the gallows in a cart, a rope secured around his neck, and the cart driven from under him. According to the sentence, the culprit would hang until he was dead or cut down before reaching that point.

Standing in the cart, Father Southwell began preaching on Romans 14: "Whether we live, we live unto the Lord: or whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. . . . I am brought hither to perform the last act of this miserable life, and . . . I do most humbly desire at the hands of Almighty God for our Savior Jesus' sake, that He would vouchsafe to pardon and forgive all my sins. . . ." He acknowledged that he was a Catholic priest and declared that he never intended harm or evil against the queen, but always prayed for her. He end with "In manus tuas, Domine (into Your hands, Lord), I commend my spirit." Contrary to the sentence, he was dead before he was cut down and quartered (Benedictines, Delaney, Undset).


Venerable Robert Southwell

Poet, Jesuit, martyr; born at Horsham St. Faith's, Norfolk, England, in 1561; hanged at Tyburn, 21 February, 1595. His grandfather, Sir Richard Southwell, had been a wealthy man and a prominent courtier in the reign of Henry VIII. It was Richard Southwell who in 1547 had brought the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, to the block, and Surrey had vainly begged to be allowed to "fight him in his shirt". Curiously enough their respective grandsons, Father Southwell and Philip, Earl of Arundel, were to be the most devoted of friends and fellow-prisoners for the Faith. On his mother's side the Jesuit was descended from the Copley and Shelley families, whence a remote connexion may be established between him and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Robert Southwell was brought up a Catholic, and at a very early age was sent to be educated at Douai, where he was the pupil in philosophy of a Jesuit of extraordinary austerity of life, the famous Leonard Lessius. After spending a short time in Paris he begged for admission into the Society of Jesus--a boon at first denied. This disappointment elicited from the boy of seventeen some passionate laments, the first of his verses of which we have record. On 17 Oct., 1578, however, he was admitted at Rome, and made his simple vows in 1580. Shortly after his noviceship, during which he was sent to Tournai, he returned to Rome to finish his studies, was ordained priest in 1584, and became prefect of studies in the English College. In 1586 he was sent on the English mission with Father Henry Garnett, found his first refuge with Lord Vaux of Harrowden, and was known under the name of Cotton.

Two years afterwards he became chaplain to the Countess of Arundel and thus established relations with her imprisoned husband, Philip, Earl of Arundel, the ancestor of the present ducal house of Norfolk, as well as with Lady Margaret Sackville, the earl's half-sister. Father Southwell's prose elegy, "Triumphs over Death", was addressed to the earl to console him for this sister's premature death, and his "Hundred Meditations on the love of God", originally written for her use, were ultimately transcribed by another hand, to present to her daughter Lady Beauchamp. Some six years were spent in zealous and successful missionary work, during which Father Southwell lay hidden in London, or passed under various disguises from one Catholic house to another. For his better protection he affected an interest in the pursuits of the country gentlemen of his day (metaphors taken from hawking are common in his writings), but his attire was always sober and his tastes simple. His character was singularly gentle, and he has never been accused of taking any part either in political intrigues or in religious disputes of a more domestic kind. In 1592 Father Southwell was arrested at Uxendon Hall, Harrow, through the treachery of an unfortunate Catholic girl, Anne Bellamy, the daughter of the owner of the house. The notorious Topcliffe, who effected the capture, wrote exultingly to the queen: "I never did take so weighty a man, if he be rightly used". But the atrocious cruelties to which Southwell was subjected did not shake his fortitude. He was examined thirteen times under torture by members of the Council, and was long confined in a dungeon swarming with vermin. After nearly three years in prison he was brought to trial and the usual punishment of hanging and quartering was inflicted.

Father Southwell's writings, both in prose and verse, were extremely popular with his contemporaries, and his religious pieces were sold openly by the booksellers though their authorship was known. Imitations abounded, and Ben Jonson declared of one of Southwell's pieces, "The Burning Babe", that to have written it he would readily forfeit many of his own poems. "Mary Magdalene's Tears", the Jesuit's earliest work, licensed in 1591, probably represents a deliberate attempt to employ in the cause of piety the euphuistic prose style, then so popular. "Triumphs over Death", also in prose, exhibits the same characteristics; but this artificiality of structure is not so marked in the "Short Rule of Good Life", the "Letter to His Father", the "Humble Supplication to Her Majesty", the "Epistle of Comfort" and the "Hundred Meditations". Southwell's longest poem, "St. Peter's Complaint" (132 six-line stanzas), is imitated, though not closely, from the Italian "Lagrime di S. Pietro" of Luigi Tansillo. This with some other smaller pieces was printed, with license, in 1595, the year of his death. Another volume of short poems appeared later in the same year under the title of "Maeoniae". The early editions of these are scarce, and some of them command high prices. A poem called "A Foure-fold Meditation", which was printed as Southwell's in 1606, is not his, but was written by his friend the Earl of Arundel. Perhaps no higher testimony can be found of the esteem in which Southwell's verse was held by his contemporaries than the fact that, while it is probable that Southwell had read Shakespeare, it is practically certain that Shakespeare had read Southwell and imitated him.

Thurston, Herbert. "Venerable Robert Southwell." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company,1912. 21 Feb. 2016 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14164a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Janet Grayson.


Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.



St. Robert Southwell: Poet and Martyr

A line that is so overused that it has almost become trite is Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be.” Yet, it hits at the existential struggle of the modern world. Hamlet’s struggle embodies the difficulty of living in a world cut off from its own past. Hamlet receives a revelation of a great rupture from the past; he is disgusted with the injustice of the present; he struggles with despair. He does not take his life, but he does sacrifice it for the honor of his family. Though Shakespeare understood what was at stake in the rise of Protestantism in England, he himself confronted the crisis in a manner very different from Hamlet. Shakespeare knew very well the price of confronting the patricide of England: members of his own family had been executed for keeping the Faith. One of the members of his family stood out for his courageous confrontation of Elizabeth’s attack on the Church: St. Robert Southwell.

Historians such as Christopher Devlin, S.J., Michael Wood, and John Klaus have argued that Southwell was Shakespeare’s cousin. While this fact is not noted by Southwell’s traditional biographers, they do note Shakespeare’s familiarity with and admiration for Southwell’s writing. The familial link between the two poets was originally based upon on an inference from the dedication of Southwell’s St. Peter’s Complaint, “The Author to His Loving Cousin,” which in some later manuscripts reads rather “To My Worthy Good Cousin Master W.S.” Klaus in his Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit provides firm genealogical evidence for this claim and also establishes a personal convergence of the two figures through their common friendship with the Earl of Southampton.  Regardless of their personal relation, Southwell’s dedication to his cousin on the duty of poets hits at the very nature of poetry.

Rather than being used to express amorous passions, poetry is meant to express praise to God. Poets who by “abusing their talent” write only about the “feignings of love” discredit the work of the poet. Wood, in his In Search of Shakespeare, notes this is meant as a criticism of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and ironically points out that his next play after the dedication was Midsummer Night’s Dream. Southwell shows the ultimate power of poetry in that God Himself “delivered many parts of the Bible in verse.” The poet takes up the craft in imitation of the Creator, particularly when it is shown “how well verse and virtue suit together.” In his note to reader which follows, Southwell echoes this point:


It is the sweetest note that man can sing

When grace in virtues key tunes nature’s string


Poetry points the way, but virtue must also be lived. This truth is powerfully expressed in that “Christ himself, by making an hymn the conclusion of his last supper, and the prologue to the first pageant of his passion, gave his Spouse a method to imitate…and to all men a pattern, to know the true use of this measured style.” Poetry is no game; it is not fulfilled in the expression of passing passions and emotions. The ultimate duty of the poet is to follow the divine pattern set forth, not only in verse, but also in deed. In Southwell’s England, this was no pious remark; it was a challenge to follow Christ to the end.

Within the context of the Elizabethan persecution of Catholics, poetry became a powerful force for expressing the lament of the soul and the expectation of vindication by God. Both  Southwell and Shakespeare responded to the patricidal attack on English faith and culture in their writings. While Shakespeare kept his Catholic faith secret throughout his career, Southwell sacrificed everything in the attempt to make right what was wrong.

Southwell’s life resembles that of the better-known martyr, Edmond Campion, with the notable exception that Southwell was raised a Catholic. Both figures studied at Douai, entered the Jesuits, taught at the English College in Rome, were sent back on mission to England, served Catholics there through successful clandestine heroics, were captured and brutally tortured, and finally received a glorious martyrdom at Tyborne (Feb. 21, 1595 in Southwell’s case). Unlike Campion, whose life itself shines as one of the glories of English Catholicism (beginning with his celebrity status at Oxford while still a Protestant), Southwell’s major legacy is his writing, which was extremely popular in England following his martyrdom. This is not to dismiss the greatness of his life, seen in his moving support to his family, convincing them to stop cooperating with Elizabeth’s religious policies, his long ministry working out of the house of the Countess of Arundel, and his absolute refusal to say one word of cooperation to his savage torturers. Yet, it is his poetry, much of which was written in prison, which masterfully captures the state of spiritual exile of English Catholics during his time, but also their steadfastness and joy in their faith.

That state of exile is expressed beautifully in Vale of Tears, a poem named from a line of the Salve Regina. The poem is noteworthy for its contemplation of the beauty of nature and for using the natural images it casts to portray a deeper reality of the spiritual life. Nature speaks in unbroken beauty and majesty, while an overpowering feeling of something disjointed and amiss, as in these lines describing the Vale:


Resort there is of none but pilgrim wights,

That pass with trembling foot and panting heart;

With terror cast in cold and shivering frights,
They judge the place to terror framed by art.


Yet nature’s work it is, of art untouch’d,

So strait indeed, so vast unto the eye,

With such disorder’d order strangely couch’d,
And with such pleasing horror low and high,


That who it views must needs remain aghast,

Much at the work, more at the Maker’s might;

And muse how nature such a plot could cast
Where nothing seemeth wrong, yet nothing right.


Southwell used the image of a deep and foreboding valley to introduce these lines about the brokenness of the human soul:


All pangs and heavy passions here may find

A thousand motives suiting to their griefs,

To feed the sorrows of their troubled mind,
And chase away dame Pleasure’s vain reliefs.


To plaining thoughts this vale a rest may be,

To which from worldly joys they may retire;

Where sorrow springs from water, stone and tree;
Where everything with mourners doth conspire.


Sit here, my soul, main streams of tears afloat,

Here all thy sinful foils alone recount;

Of solemn tunes make thou the doleful note,
That, by thy ditties, dolour may amount.


While beauty remains in the world, even after sin, it is no longer unspoilt. The beauty of this world will always be tinged with sadness, with tears. The soul is truly a pilgrim and cannot see this world as its home, but rather as a site through which one passes on the way to the beauty which will truly last.
Southwell’s most famous poem, The Burning Babe, is one in a series of Christmas poems. It was a poem so admired that the playwright Ben Jonson said he would trade all that he had written to have written it himself. Here it is in its entirety:


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.


In this poem, Southwell fulfills the potential of poetry to serve the praise of God, juxtaposing the love of Christ with the sins of man.

It is this backdrop which inspired Shakespeare to take up the poem by Southwell in Macbeth, possibly his darkest play. Macbeth clearly manifests the satanic forces of violence destructively at work in society. Using Southwell’s poetry in this context is an affirmation of Southwell’s poetic vision, the spiritual power of poetry to give praise even in the context of death and destruction. Macbeth, in his soliloquy before the murder of the king Duncan, realizes the treachery and injustice of his contemplated deed, and refers to the pity which it will invoke in terms of a naked babe:


          Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.


The burning babe, praised by Southwell, is called upon by Shakespeare as the witness to the treachery and death of the innocent king and, one might say, to the treachery and death of all the innocents betrayed for the faith in the usurpation of the old Catholic way of life.

These two poems represent the ways in which Southwell saw the power of poetry in Christian life. In Vale of Tears he captures the beauty of human life, in this case the natural world, though it is in a state of sorrow and even somewhat in disorder. This reflects the truth that Christian life is a pilgrimage: even beauty is passing and human life moves in sorrow toward its goal beyond this world. This message poignantly captures the state of his native England, where the medieval tradition of Merry England was turned on its head by the Reformation and where the faith was systematically persecuted. The Burning Babe passes more explicitly into the use of poetry of praise of God, which Southwell sees most perfectly expresses in the psalms. This mode keeps alive the heart of the world that he saw passing away by expressing the Catholic faith in an artistically dynamic way.

Southwell, by his life and even more so by his death, shows us the true duty of a poet. Not only to express the truth, beauty, and goodness of the world, and their opposites, but also to embody this truth and to be willing to lay one’s life down on its behalf. The greatest poetry passes through the created world and into the holiness that lies beyond, into the poetry of the soul’s loving communication with the Creator.  Southwell shows us how to present, embrace, and defend the truth, no matter the cost.


The Works of Robert Southwell :