St. Robert Southwell: Poet and Martyr

A line that is so overused that it has almost become trite is Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be.” Yet, it hits at the existential struggle of the modern world. Hamlet’s struggle embodies the difficulty of living in a world cut off from its own past. Hamlet receives a revelation of a great rupture from the past; he is disgusted with the injustice of the present; he struggles with despair. He does not take his life, but he does sacrifice it for the honor of his family. Though Shakespeare understood what was at stake in the rise of Protestantism in England, he himself confronted the crisis in a manner very different from Hamlet. Shakespeare knew very well the price of confronting the patricide of England: members of his own family had been executed for keeping the Faith. One of the members of his family stood out for his courageous confrontation of Elizabeth’s attack on the Church: St. Robert Southwell.

Historians such as Christopher Devlin, S.J., Michael Wood, and John Klaus have argued that Southwell was Shakespeare’s cousin. While this fact is not noted by Southwell’s traditional biographers, they do note Shakespeare’s familiarity with and admiration for Southwell’s writing. The familial link between the two poets was originally based upon on an inference from the dedication of Southwell’s St. Peter’s Complaint, “The Author to His Loving Cousin,” which in some later manuscripts reads rather “To My Worthy Good Cousin Master W.S.” Klaus in his Shakespeare, the Earl, and the Jesuit provides firm genealogical evidence for this claim and also establishes a personal convergence of the two figures through their common friendship with the Earl of Southampton.  Regardless of their personal relation, Southwell’s dedication to his cousin on the duty of poets hits at the very nature of poetry.

Rather than being used to express amorous passions, poetry is meant to express praise to God. Poets who by “abusing their talent” write only about the “feignings of love” discredit the work of the poet. Wood, in his In Search of Shakespeare, notes this is meant as a criticism of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and ironically points out that his next play after the dedication was Midsummer Night’s Dream. Southwell shows the ultimate power of poetry in that God Himself “delivered many parts of the Bible in verse.” The poet takes up the craft in imitation of the Creator, particularly when it is shown “how well verse and virtue suit together.” In his note to reader which follows, Southwell echoes this point:

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It is the sweetest note that man can sing
When grace in virtues key tunes nature’s string

Poetry points the way, but virtue must also be lived. This truth is powerfully expressed in that “Christ himself, by making an hymn the conclusion of his last supper, and the prologue to the first pageant of his passion, gave his Spouse a method to imitate…and to all men a pattern, to know the true use of this measured style.” Poetry is no game; it is not fulfilled in the expression of passing passions and emotions. The ultimate duty of the poet is to follow the divine pattern set forth, not only in verse, but also in deed. In Southwell’s England, this was no pious remark; it was a challenge to follow Christ to the end.

southwellWithin the context of the Elizabethan persecution of Catholics, poetry became a powerful force for expressing the lament of the soul and the expectation of vindication by God. Both  Southwell and Shakespeare responded to the patricidal attack on English faith and culture in their writings. While Shakespeare kept his Catholic faith secret throughout his career, Southwell sacrificed everything in the attempt to make right what was wrong.

Southwell’s life resembles that of the better-known martyr, Edmond Campion, with the notable exception that Southwell was raised a Catholic. Both figures studied at Douai, entered the Jesuits, taught at the English College in Rome, were sent back on mission to England, served Catholics there through successful clandestine heroics, were captured and brutally tortured, and finally received a glorious martyrdom at Tyborne (Feb. 21, 1595 in Southwell’s case). Unlike Campion, whose life itself shines as one of the glories of English Catholicism (beginning with his celebrity status at Oxford while still a Protestant), Southwell’s major legacy is his writing, which was extremely popular in England following his martyrdom. This is not to dismiss the greatness of his life, seen in his moving support to his family, convincing them to stop cooperating with Elizabeth’s religious policies, his long ministry working out of the house of the Countess of Arundel, and his absolute refusal to say one word of cooperation to his savage torturers. Yet, it is his poetry, much of which was written in prison, which masterfully captures the state of spiritual exile of English Catholics during his time, but also their steadfastness and joy in their faith.

That state of exile is expressed beautifully in Vale of Tears, a poem named from a line of the Salve Regina. The poem is noteworthy for its contemplation of the beauty of nature and for using the natural images it casts to portray a deeper reality of the spiritual life. Nature speaks in unbroken beauty and majesty, while an overpowering feeling of something disjointed and amiss, as in these lines describing the Vale:

Resort there is of none but pilgrim wights,
That pass with trembling foot and panting heart;
With terror cast in cold and shivering frights,
They judge the place to terror framed by art.

Yet nature’s work it is, of art untouch’d,
So strait indeed, so vast unto the eye,
With such disorder’d order strangely couch’d,
And with such pleasing horror low and high,

That who it views must needs remain aghast,
Much at the work, more at the Maker’s might;
And muse how nature such a plot could cast
Where nothing seemeth wrong, yet nothing right.

Southwell used the image of a deep and foreboding valley to introduce these lines about the brokenness of the human soul:

All pangs and heavy passions here may find
A thousand motives suiting to their griefs,
To feed the sorrows of their troubled mind,
And chase away dame Pleasure’s vain reliefs.

To plaining thoughts this vale a rest may be,
To which from worldly joys they may retire;
Where sorrow springs from water, stone and tree;
Where everything with mourners doth conspire.

Sit here, my soul, main streams of tears afloat,
Here all thy sinful foils alone recount;
Of solemn tunes make thou the doleful note,
That, by thy ditties, dolour may amount.

While beauty remains in the world, even after sin, it is no longer unspoilt. The beauty of this world will always be tinged with sadness, with tears. The soul is truly a pilgrim and cannot see this world as its home, but rather as a site through which one passes on the way to the beauty which will truly last.

Southwell’s most famous poem, The Burning Babe, is one in a series of Christmas poems. It was a poem so admired that the playwright Ben Jonson said he would trade all that he had written to have written it himself. Here it is in its entirety:

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, scorchëd 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 defilëd 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 callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

In this poem, Southwell fulfills the potential of poetry to serve the praise of God, juxtaposing the love of Christ with the sins of man.

It is this backdrop which inspired Shakespeare to take up the poem by Southwell in Macbeth, possibly his darkest play. Macbeth clearly manifests the satanic forces of violence destructively at work in society. Using Southwell’s poetry in this context is an affirmation of Southwell’s poetic vision, the spiritual power of poetry to give praise even in the context of death and destruction. Macbeth, in his soliloquy before the murder of the king Duncan, realizes the treachery and injustice of his contemplated deed, and refers to the pity which it will invoke in terms of a naked babe:

          Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

The burning babe, praised by Southwell, is called upon by Shakespeare as the witness to the treachery and death of the innocent king and, one might say, to the treachery and death of all the innocents betrayed for the faith in the usurpation of the old Catholic way of life.

These two poems represent the ways in which Southwell saw the power of poetry in Christian life. In Vale of Tears he captures the beauty of human life, in this case the natural world, though it is in a state of sorrow and even somewhat in disorder. This reflects the truth that Christian life is a pilgrimage: even beauty is passing and human life moves in sorrow toward its goal beyond this world. This message poignantly captures the state of his native England, where the medieval tradition of Merry England was turned on its head by the Reformation and where the faith was systematically persecuted. The Burning Babe passes more explicitly into the use of poetry of praise of God, which Southwell sees most perfectly expresses in the psalms. This mode keeps alive the heart of the world that he saw passing away by expressing the Catholic faith in an artistically dynamic way.

Southwell, by his life and even more so by his death, shows us the true duty of a poet. Not only to express the truth, beauty, and goodness of the world, and their opposites, but also to embody this truth and to be willing to lay one’s life down on its behalf. The greatest poetry passes through the created world and into the holiness that lies beyond, into the poetry of the soul’s loving communication with the Creator.  Southwell shows us how to present, embrace, and defend the truth, no matter the cost.


  • R. Jared Staudt

    R. Jared Staudt, PhD serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90. He is author, most recently, of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN, 2023) and editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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