Priestly Poets: Donne and Southwell as Writers for God

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One of the most noticeable differences between the poets is the contrary attitude each holds towards the coupling of time and spirituality. Riding Westward, for example, retains Christ’s crucifixion as a past historical event, which is being recalled and applied in the present (Elsky 69-70). As Donne says, “Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye, / They are present yet unto my memory…” (33-34). He seeks to experience Christ’s power presently while acknowledging its past advent: “But that Christ on this cross did rise and fall, / Sin had eternally benighted all” (13-14, emphasis mine). Southwell, however, uses a very different approach, choosing instead to draw a past event from the musty pages of history and to resurrect it as a present occurrence. In fact, Southwell is “unwilling to view God, the Virgin Mary, the Angles, the Saints…in an intellectual and impersonal light, and delights in…bringing them into actual existence upon earth…in making them into daily friends and companions” (Janelle 287). Southwell tells of the arrival of the Christ child in this way: “And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near, / A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear…” (3-4). To Southwell, the baby Jesus literally appeared to him on that “Christmas day” (16). While Good Friday triggers for Donne a poignant recollection of the events and purpose of Christ’s sacrifice, Christmas actually revivifies itself for Southwell, blurring the distinction between past and present. Indeed, it is the present—not the past—of which Southwell must be reminded.

Closely bound to this perspective on time are the poets’ decisions to either externalize or internalize the spiritual encounter with Christ. Far from being a private meditation, for example, Southwell implies an almost evangelistic intention in his writing (Carballo 225). The Christ child complains, “Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!” (8), and then he “vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away” as if he were rushing off to go do something about it (15). Donne seems to care very little about evangelism here, preferring rather to focus on his own sinfulness and holiness. In the last line he writes, “That [Jesus] may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face” (42, emphasis mine). Donne considers his own state with God paramount and suggests that others think similarly: “Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this, / The intelligence that moves, devotion is…” (1-2). Appropriately, this reflects the societal state each poet was in. Southwell, an underground Catholic, largely spent his time encouraging other Catholics and trying to convert people to his way of thinking (White 160-161). But Donne, who held orthodox Anglican views when Anglicanism was the established church, had less impetus to proselytize than to consider the day-to-day aspects of living a life of spirituality.

Much in the poems’ styles evidences this contrast between external and internal mindsets. The Burning Babe actually occurs in a definite place and maintains a miniature plot line. Observe the concrete narrative description that Southwell uses in his opening lines when he says, “As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow, / Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow…” (1-2). Eventually, the “pretty babe” (4) appeared, shed “floods of tears” for those who would not share in his warmth (5), explained that he came to “wash [the sins of men] in [his] blood” (14), and then “vanished” (15), leaving the narrator to call “unto mind that it was Christmas day” (16). We are given precious little insight into the poet’s thoughts, and baby Jesus’ mind is revealed solely through his actions and what he verbalizes to us. Riding Westward, on the other hand, occurs in no specified setting other than the mindscape of the poet. The word “Riding” in the title is one of its few indications of physical setting, and indeed that word is likely chosen to reflect the spiritual motion and searching reflected in the first ten lines as much as it is Donne’s method of locomotion. Moreover, the entire structure of the poem serves to focus one on internal flow and movement. Although unified in their meaning, Donne’s poetic metaphors flow in something approximating stream-of-consciousness, leaping among topics like the heavenly “spheres” (3), the “rising” and “setting” of “a Sun” (11-12), “those hands which span the poles” (21), Jesus’ “miserable mother” (30), and Donne’s desiring to “receive / Corrections” from the punishment of his Lord (37-38). This difference can at least partly be attributed to denominational differences. “The Catholic poet, like Southwell…generally maintains a distinction between the meditating subject and the object of his meditation, whereas the Protestant poet often unites them, so that events in the life of Christ are reenacted in his heart, as they are in the Protestant communicant” (Elsky 82-83).

But this is not to say that everything is contrary between the poems. Many elements show a unified meaning between them, or a cohesion of similar metaphors and messages. For instance, eyesight unites the poems as an indication of spiritual devotion. Donne frequently equates eyesight and seeing with understanding in his poetry, and he does so in Riding Westward as well (Sherwood 114). Referring to the crucifixion of Christ, he writes, “Yet dare I almost be glad I do not see / That spectacle, of too much weight for me” (15-16). Donne, who has been wrestling with the message of the cross, here restates his point in multi-leveled poesy. Donne indicates that he is glad that he does not have to witness the death of his beloved Lord, as such a spectacle would bring too much sorrow to his heart. But, in the same sentence, he is also saying that he, being a sinful and small-minded man, is almost glad that he does not “see” or “comprehend” the significance of Calvary as the utter Truth of it is far too weighty and profound for him. Southwell uses a similar image in line three of his poem, when he says, “And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near….” Here, “fearful eye” could also be rendered “fear-filled eye,” meaning that he reverently and respectfully turned his gaze to God. This harkens back to such Biblical passages as Psalms 52:6, which states that “the righteous will see and fear.” Southwell’s attitude of spiritual devotion apparently has entitled him to this private appearance by the Christ child. Again, when the infant “vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away” in line fifteen, another Biblical passage, (such as John 16:5-7), seems to be referenced: “Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” This is evidenced by the fact that immediately following Christ’s departure, Southwell was granted a closer glimpse of God through the truth of the moment: “And straight I callèd unto mind that it was Christmas day” (16). With God, out of sight does not necessarily imply out of mind.