Top poems 3: Robert Southwell “The Burning Babe”

It has been a while between poems here! With Christmas coming up, I thought I would post a few Christmas poems. This is perhaps the most bizarre, though I recall when first reading it at the age of sixteen being quite drawn by its odd imagery. I am no longer so sure of the theology it encapsulates, but that is another matter.

nativity

Piero della Francesca, Nativity (c. 1470), National Gallery, London

    

THE BURNING BABE

By Robert Southwell

As I in hoary Winter’s night stood shiveringe in the snowe,
Surpris’d I was with sodayne heat, which made my hart to glowe;
And liftinge upp a fearefull eye to
vewe what fire was nere,
A prety Babe all burninge bright, did in the ayre appeare.
Who scorchèd with excessive heate, such floodes of teares did shedd,
As though His floodes should quench His flames which with His teares were fedd;
Alas! quoth He, but newly borne, in fiery heates I frye,
Yet none approch to warme their hartes or feele my fire but I!
My faultles brest the fornace is, the fuell woundinge thornes,
Love is the fire, and sighes the smoke, the ashes shame and scornes;
The fuell Justice layeth on, and Mercy blowes the coales,
The metall in this fornace wrought are men’s defilèd soules,
For which, as nowe on fire I am, to worke them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to washe them in My bloode:
With this He vanisht out of sight, and swiftly shroncke awaye,
And straight I callèd unto mynde that it was Christmas-daye.

 

Southwell was a Catholic martyr. According to WikiSource, from which I took the original spelling edition above: “The Burning Babe was taken from a collection called St. Peter’s Complaint, printed privately and circulated shortly after the poet’s execution in 1595. Ben Jonson said that he would have been content to destroy many of his own poems to have written The Burning Babe.” The title link takes you to a modernised version.

For a Jerome Rothenberg book of the same name see illustrated Burning Babe.

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