Priestly Poets: Donne and Southwell as Writers for God

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Another example of a metaphor that both poets share compares our purification to the smelting of an impure metal in a heated forge. Actually, Donne frequently symbolizes the soul and the will using metals, and here the process of purification must be instigated by punishment from God (Sherwood 113). Riding Westward states, “I turn my back to thee but to receive / Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave. / O think me worth thine anger; punish me; / Burn off my rusts and my deformity” (37-40). Donne’s poem focuses on the conflict between soul and body, between sacred and profane, and he concludes that although he knows what is right, God’s punishment is required to beat him into the submission of actually following through with his cleansing. As he says, “Hence is ‘t, that I am carried towards the West / This day, when my soul’s form bends toward the East” (9-10), and “Restore thine image so much, by thy grace, / That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face” (41-42). Southwell also dictates the necessity of God’s forging men’s souls, but in his poem the forge is none other than Jesus himself: “My faultless breast the furnace is…The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilèd souls…So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood” (9-14). Southwell seems to differ with Donne here over the method of purification, for while Donne required personal God-delivered punishment on himself, Southwell insists that the punishment for sin was atoned for by Christ alone. He specifies that “[Jesus’] faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns, / Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns” (9-10, emphasis mine). The burden of sinful rebellion against God is taken up by Jesus Christ out of nothing less than love for men and desire “to work them to their good” (13).

Perhaps the most important tropological similarity between the poems is that both use a burning, flying object to manifest Jesus Christ. For Southwell, the object is the infant Jesus Christ himself, the Burning Babe. For Donne, the object is the rising sun, which grows hot on his back as he rides Westward. Nevertheless, the sun strongly figures Jesus in Donne’s poem: “There [in the East] I should see a Sun, by rising, set, / And by that setting endless day beget: / But that Christ on this cross did rise and fall, / Sin had eternally benighted all” (11-14). Donne makes use of the frequent Sun/Son play on words in Christian poetry, but he uses the rising and setting in a perhaps unexpected way. When one hears of “setting” and “rising” applied to Christ, one is likely first to think of Christ’s death and resurrection. However, Donne uses the sun’s rising to figure Christ’s being lifted high onto the cross (not unlike when Jesus himself says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” in John 3:14), and the sun’s setting to figure his death. Christ’s dying therefore results in “endless day” for the believer, which is why Donne can say, “There I should see a Sun, by rising, set, / And by that setting endless day beget.”

Also, for both Southwell and Donne, the burning Christ is an object in motion. Southwell’s Christ, “vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away” (15), and if we follow the reading that Christ’s burning appearance was intended as a kind of evangelistic summons to follow after him, then the reader finds himself inclined to chase after the vanishing marvelous babe. Yet Donne’s Christ pursues him, and this Christ must purify Donne’s sins before he turns toward his savior: “I turn my back to Thee but to receive / Corrections… Burn off my rusts and my deformity… and I’ll turn my face” 37-8, 40, 42). Further, although both Christs burn, Donne’s Christ burns others (“O think me worth Thine anger; punish me; / Burn off my rusts and my deformity” [39-40]) while Southwell’s Christ burns himself in order to purify the sins of mankind (“A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear; / Who, scorchèd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed” [4-5]). The flaming Christological image clearly stands as the metaphorical focus of both poems, and one marvels at what differing poetic creations can spring from one figurative source even while each retains this same pictorial center of gravity.

It may be worth making one further point, though. Without denying that Donne’s work exists in a primarily internal, reflective realm, Donne’s words anticipate a time soon to come when the unspecified landscape in which he rides will be awash in the rays of the burning sun. He describes the sun as begetting “endless day” (12), he expresses the extreme power of the rising sun as “That spectacle, of too much weight for me” (16)—indeed his metaphor would liken the sun to “God’s face” (17)—and he declares that this sun would have the power to “Burn off [his] rusts and [his] deformity” (40), which is why as yet he dares not cast his eye upon it. In other words, though it is presently imagined, Donne describes a world where the burning sun is the dominant and overpowering image. The poetic setting, one might say, is little more than the blazing sun itself. On the other hand, Southwell’s burning Christ is startling for its sudden appearance and heat precisely because it does not define the setting of the poem. Southwell’s poem begins, “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). It is Christmas day, after all, and Southwell’s poem is one of cold dark shivering until the burning babe appears. In other words, while Donne’s Christ characterizes all that he surveys, Southwell’s Christ establishes a contrast and exists as a minority voice, which laments, “Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!” (8).

One wonders if there is not some correlation between each poet’s conception of Christ and their respective religio-political situations at the time. In other words, Donne the Anglican lives in a country where all that he surveys is officially (if not actually) Anglican. Yes, no one is fooled into thinking that there are no dissenters present, but, after all, Donne’s Christ is one that is practiced in burning away rusts and deformity. Southwell’s Christ, though, appears suddenly within a setting that does not seem hospitable to or consonant with his fiery presence. Indeed, as nearly as one can tell, this Christ comes as a private vision and may not even be visible to anyone else around. At the very least, there seem to be no other observers nearby to notice. The Burning Babe comes almost as a voice crying out in the wilderness, summoning faithful ones to follow him and lamenting that he seems to be the only one experiencing the warmth of his redeeming fires. Moreover, one wonders what kind of pagan wasteland (so to speak) the speaker was wandering in to have been able to forget in the first place that it was Christmas day! Surely this is a place where winter dominates, and flashes of light and hope come as a miraculous exception, not the rule. Perhaps this is putting it too strongly, but no artistic work is created in a vacuum, and one wonders what roles these two poets’ respective religious contexts played in shaping their rendering of their savior.

How strange it is that two poets who differed in so much could nevertheless complement each other so well. Donne died a well-respected and celebrated preacher; Southwell died an enemy of the people, executed for his variant beliefs. Both, though, dedicated their lives to the glory of God. The Burning Babe focused on the birth of Christ, while Riding Westward centered on his death, but the poems could act as bookends to the Christian life, for Donne’s Christ remembers past sacrifice while Southwell’s Christ points towards future redemption. Although each addresses a different facet of it, both poets are heavily directed by a Christian view of time, with the liturgical calendar holding strong sway over the poetic meaning. The poets emphasize alternative facets of Christian living but not so much so that their messages are irreconcilable. Donne’s harsh insistence of purification through suffering echoes the instruction in Luke 9:23, that whoever would seek to follow the way of God “must deny himself and take up his cross daily….” Southwell’s hopeful evangelism does not fail to complete the verse: “…and follow me.”

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.