The Burning Babe
By Robert Southwell
From St. Peter’s Complaint, 1595
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, scorchèd 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 defilèd 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 callèd unto mind that it was Christmas day.
Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward
By John Donne
Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirled by it.
Hence is ‘t, that I am carried towards the West
This day, when my soul’s form bends towards the East.
There 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.
Yet dare I almost be glad I do not see
That spectacle, of too much weight for me.
Who sees God’s face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made his own lieutenant, Nature, shrink;
It made his footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands which span the poles,
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height which is
Zenith to us, and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? Or that blood which is
The seat of all our souls, if not of His,
Make dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God, for his apparel, ragg’d and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnished thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransomed us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
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;
Restore Thine image so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.
Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The strength of a man consists in finding out the way God is going, and going that way.” Both John Donne and Robert Southwell would likely agree with this assessment, though, ironically, their lives took strikingly different paths from one another. Donne and Southwell were both born into staunchly Roman Catholic families in the late 16th Century, at a time when Catholicism was illegal in England. However, Donne eventually renounced his denomination in favor of the more popularly accepted Anglicanism while Southwell, even in the face of oppression, remained an underground Catholic and was eventually executed for his beliefs. Although both poets turned their words to Holy Matters, Donne wrote from within the system, whereas Southwell used his words to subvert it. Comparing Southwell’s The Burning Babe to Donne’s Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward casts into sharp relief the poets’ conflicting perspectives, but it also accents the remarkable similarities that they nevertheless retain toward one another. Although their methods and style may differ, it is clear that Donne and Southwell are seeking the same God.
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.
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.
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