Priestly Poets: Donne and Southwell as Writers for God

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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.