The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VII. Robert Southwell. Samuel Daniel

§ 1. Robert Southwell

REFERENCE was made at the close of the previous chapter to the poetry of piety and philosophy which became prominent in the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign. Such poetry falls, roughly, into two classes, of which the two poets whose names give the title to this chapter are representative: Southwell of the purely religious poetry, Daniel of the humanistic and historical.

In purely religious poetry, the period was not rich. There were few poets who did not, at one time or another, write a religious poem; on the other hand, the whole body of religious verse, if collected, would not amount to a large total, and only one important poet of the age is, specifically, a religious poet. Round Robert Southwell, the Jesuit, in late Elizabethan days no less than in our own, floated a glamour due to the story of his life and death. Born in 1561, of an illegitimate branch of the old Catholic family of Southwell, probably at his father’s estate of Horsham St. Faith near Norwich, he is said to have been stolen from his cradle by a gypsy who was tempted by his uncommon beauty. At an early age, he came under the influence of the Jesuits, being sent to the college at Douay, and thence transferred to Paris. Thomas Darbyshire, his chief guide in Paris, had resigned, on Elizabeth’s accession, the archdeaconry of Essex which he had held under Mary. Southwell early showed an intense desire to belong to the Society of Jesus, and, after a period of probation which he found almost intolerably long, succeeded in making his own way to Rome, where he was admitted to the novitiate at the age of seventeen. At the end of his novitiate, he was appointed prefect of studies at the English college in Rome, a position which he held until, in 1586, he was selected to accompany Henry Garnett into England on the work of the English mission inaugurated by Parsons, and Edmund Campion in 1580. The call appeared to him to be an almost certain promise of the martyrdom on which his desires had long been set. Nevertheless, he carried on his perilous work in England for six years, before he was decoyed, in 1592, into the hands of the informer Topcliffe and imprisoned in Topcliffe’s house in Westminster. After thirteen applications of the torture and two years and a half of imprisonment, Southwell was executed at Tyburn, in February 1594/5.

It was in prison that his poems were mainly written. When poets sing of the shortness and the deceptive character of life, one is often tempted to wonder whether the sentiments are not the purely conventional utterances of men sitting at ease in comfortable homes, or merely signs of reaction from an excess of pleasure. From Southwell’s own statements, we know that his body never recovered from the tortures it had suffered, and, from his letters and journals, that such a death as he expected had long been his highest ambition. This certificate of sincerity, combined with a vivid imagination and an epigrammatic keenness of expression, imparts to his poems a brilliance only tempered by the sweetness of nature to which they, with everything we know of the poet, bear witness.

In writing his poetry, Southwell may be said to have had before him three motives: the expression of his own thoughts and feelings, to which life in prison gave no other outlet; the comfort and edification of his fellow Catholics; and a third, which gives them a peculiar literary interest. His poems were not published in his lifetime; but that he contemplated publication is clear from the letter to his cousin which prefaces Saint Peters Complaint. His object, like Milton’s in the following century, was to rescue the art of poetry from the worldly uses to which it had been almost solely devoted.

  • “Most poets,” he writes, “now busie themselves in expressing such passions as onely serve for testimonies to howe unworthy affections they have wedded their wills. And, because the best course to let them see the errour of their works is to weave a new webbe in their owne loome, I have here laide a few course threds together.”
  • There can be no doubt that Southwell had read Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, which was published in 1593 and at once became the most popular poem of the day. He seems, indeed, to have regarded it as the capital instance of the poetry he wished to supplant. His Saint Peters Complaint, published in 1595, soon after his death, is written in the metre of Shakespeare’s poem, and the preliminary address from the author to the reader contains a line, “Stil finest wits are stilling Venus’ rose,” which may be a direct reference to it, and certainly would be considered so by Southwell’s readers. And, if Southwell had read Shakespeare, it is clear, from a number of interesting correspondences to be found in their works, that Shakespeare had read Southwell. At any rate, the attempt to give to sacred poetry the merit and charm of profane did not pass unnoticed. Saint Peters Complaint was attacked by Joseph Hall in his eighth satire in the line: “Now good St. Peter weeps pure Helicon.”

    Saint Peters Complaint is a long poem describing the incidents of the last days of the life of Christ, seen in the light of the remorse of the saint for having denied his Master; and its theme is chiefly remarkable for the great number and ingenuity of the “conceits” which it embodies. Comparisons, which must seem extravagant and far-fetched were they applied to any subject but the Redeemer, paradoxes and antitheses, which must seem affected were they not the only means of expressing the illimitable in terms of the finite, and, therefore, inevitable in dealing with the Incarnation, are heaped one upon another until the poem becomes a leading example of the poetical “wit” of the age. The paradox is inherent in the subject, being almost entirely theological and embodying the Catholic view of the nature of Christ and the eternal contrast between the reality of things spiritual and the unreality of the things of this world. Southwell, almost certainly, was a student at first hand of the Italian poetry which had been the origin of the “conceits” then common in English poetry; and the effort to express the eternal through the imagery of the temporal was one which his church, even in her liturgies, has always sanctioned. The first line of a famous stanza in Saint Peters Complaint, for instance, in which the bloody sweat of Christ is compared to “Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,” has its theological origin in the litany of Loreto, while the remainder of the stanza, which works out the comparisons, could be paralleled in a hundred poems of the time. Another form of contrast beloved by Southwell is that between the old dispensation and the new; the idea, for instance, expressed in the hymn, Ave maris Stella, finds its counterpart in one of his poems dealing with the change of “Eva” to “Ave.”

    To modern readers, however, and, especially, to modern readers other than Catholics, who may find these constant antithetical and paradoxical flights a little strange, Southwell’s shorter poems will appeal more strongly. Some of them are to be found at the end of Saint Peters Complaint; others were collected a few months later and published under the title Maeoniae (1595). These, too are paradoxical: poems that deal with the nativity and the life on earth of Christ could hardly be anything else; but the shorter flight and the greater prominence of the poet’s lyrical power render the antitheses less noticeable. And one or two of them, when the chance occurs, are free from antithesis, and are content with a simple, but profound, symbolism. Such are the poems called New Prince, New Pompe; New Heaven, New Warre; or the finely imaginative and glowing little poem, The Burning Babe, of which Ben Jonson said to Drummond of Hawthornden that “so he had written that piece of his, The Burning Babe, he would have been content to destroy many of his.” Southwell is one of our few religious poets who have preferred the lyrical to the didactic manner, or, in being indirectly didactic (for Saint Peters Complaint draws a moral from every incident of the crucifixion), have maintained the lyric note. In the poem that was published eleven years after his death and of which a unique copy survives, the Foure-fould Meditation of the foure last things, the meditation, in particular, on the joys of heaven shows a power of sustained lyrical exaltation, which has all Crashaw’s force with more than Crashaw’s restraint. Southwell’s mind is, naturally in his circumstances, much occupied with thoughts of sin, death and judgment; but he writes on these subjects with vividness and originality; and his intellectual force and religious passion make his treatment of them very different from the somewhat commonplace, or jaded, reflections which are to be found in the song-books.

    As a metrist, Southwell’s range is not wide. For his longer poems, he employs exclusively the decasyllabic line, arranged in stanzas of four or six. The metre of Saint Peters Complaint, admirably adapted for narrative or exposition, is one in which it is not easy to preserve the lyric exaltation; and Southwell’s power as a poet may be gauged by his success in this respect. In The Burning Babe, he uses the old fourteener line, and indulges in a good deal of alliteration; but it is almost surprising to observe how, in such hands as his, this much abused metre is capable of a force and sweetness which its earlier practitioners had very rarely achieved. His language is simple and easy, though he has an affection for one or two archaic words; and he makes sparing use of words derived from Latin.