72 Robert Southwell: Selected Poems

“Saint Robert Southwell, S.J. (1561-1595)” by unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons.


Robert Southwell (1561 – 1595), also Saint Robert Southwell, was an English Roman Catholic priest of the Jesuit Order. He was also a poet, hymnodist, and clandestine missionary in Elizabethan England.

After being arrested and imprisoned in 1592, and intermittently tortured and questioned by Richard Topcliffe, Southwell was eventually tried and convicted of high treason for his links to the Holy See. On 21 February 1595, Father Southwell was hanged at Tyburn. In 1970, he was canonised by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales (“Robert Southwell”).



He was born at Horsham St Faith, Norfolk, England. Southwell, the youngest of eight children, was brought up in a family of the Norfolk gentry. Despite their Catholic sympathies, the Southwells had profited considerably from King Henry VIII’s Suppression of the Monasteries. Robert was third son of Richard Southwell of Horsham St. Faith’s, Norfolk, by his first wife, Bridget, daughter of Sir Roger Copley of Roughway, Sussex. The hymnodist’s maternal grandmother was Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Shelley; Sir Richard Southwell was his paternal grandfather, but his father was born out of wedlock (Ibid).


Literary Legacy

Much of Southwell’s literary legacy rests on his considerable influence on other writers. There is evidence of Shakespeare’s allusions to Southwell’s work, particularly in The Merchant of Venice, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear. Southwell’s influence can be seen in the work of Donne, Herbert, Crashaw and Hopkins (Ibid).

Southwell’s writing differs from that of the Christian stoics of his time in his belief in the creative value of passion. Some of Southwell’s contemporaries were also defenders of passion, but he was very selective when it came to where passions were directed. He was quoted as saying, “Passions I allow, and loves I approve, only I would wish that men would alter their object and better their intent.” He felt that he could use his writing to stir religious feelings; and it is this pattern in his writing that has caused scholars to declare him a leading Baroque writer (Ibid).

Works Cited

“Robert Southwell (Jesuit).” Wikipedia, 20 Sept. 2020. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Southwell_(Jesuit) Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.

Discussion Questions

  1. What influence does Jesuit meditation have on Southwell’s poems?
  2. Southwell’s attitude toward “the passion” was controversial in his day. Can you see evidence of this belief system in his works?
  3. He is considered to be a “metaphysical poet” and often associated with John Donne and George Herbert; what connections can you make with these other poets?

Further Resources

  • A video biography of Saint Robert Southwell
  • An article from Thinking Faith on Southwell’s poetry
  • A blog post discussing Shakespeare’s allusions to Southwell

Reading: Selected Poems


The Nativity of Christ

Behold the father is his daughter’s son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch’d therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.

O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast;
Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!


His Circumcision

The head is lanced to work the body’s cure,
With angring salve it smarts to heal our wound,
To faultless son from all offences pure
The faulty vassals scourges do redound,
The Judge is cast the guilty to acquit,
The son defaced to lend the star his light,

The vein of life distilleth drops of grace,
Our rock gives issue to an heavenly spring,
Tears from his eyes, blood runs from wounded place,
Which showers to heaven of joy a harvest bring,
This sacred dew let angels gather up,
Such dainty drops best fit their nectared cup.

With weeping eyes his mother rued° his smart,
If blood from him, tears came from her as fast,
The knife that cut his flesh did pierce her heart,
The pain that Jesus felt did Mary taste,
His life and hers hung by one fatal twist,
No blow that hit the son the mother missed.

Christ’s Bloody Sweat

Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,
That yields,that streams, that pours, that dost


Untilled, undrawn, unstamped, untouched of press,
Dear fruit, clear brooks, fair oil, sweet wine at will:
Thus Christ unforced prevents in shedding blood
The whips, the thorns, the nails, the spear, and rood.

He Pelican’s, he Phoenix fate doth prove,
Whom flames consume, whom streams enforce to die,
How burneth blood, how bleedeth burning love?
Can one in flame and stream both bathe and fry?
How could he join a Phoenix fiery pains
In fainting Pelican’s still bleeding veins?

Elias once to prove god’s sovereign power
By prayer procured a fire of wondrous force
That blood and wood and water did devour,
Yea stones and dust beyond all nature’s course:
Such fire is love that fed with gory blood
Doth burn no less than in the driest wood.2

O sacred Fire come show thy force on me
That sacrifice to Christ I may return,
If withered wood for fuel fittest be,
If stones and dust, if flesh and blood will burn,
I withered am and stony to all good,
A sack of dust, a mass of flesh and blood.


Lewd Love is Loss

Misdeeming eye! that stoopest to the lure
Of mortall worthes, not worth so worthy love;
All beautye’s base, all graces are impure,
That do thy erring thoughtes from God remove.
Sparkes to the fire, the beames yeld to the sunne,
All grace to God, from Whome all graces runne.

If picture move, more should the paterne please;
No shadow can with shadowed thinge compare,
And fayrest shapes, whereon our loves do ceaze,
But sely signes of God’s high beautyes are.
Go, sterving sense, feede thou on earthly maste;
Trewe love, in heaven seeke thou thy sweete repast.

Gleane not in barrayne soyle these offall-eares,
Sith reape thou mayst whole harvests of delighte;
Base joyes with greifes, bad hopes do end in feares,
Lewd love with losse, evill peace with dedly fighte:
God’s love alone doth end with endlesse ease,
Whose joyes in hope, whose hope concludes in peace.

Lett not the luringe trayne of phansies trapp,
Or gracious features, proofes of Nature’s skill,
Lull Reason’s force asleepe in Error’s lapp,
Or drawe thy witt to bent of wanton will.
The fayrest floures have not the sweetest smell;
A seeminge heaven proves oft a damninge hell.

Selfe-pleasing soules, that play with beautye’s bayt,
In shyning shroud may swallowe fatall hooke;
Where eager sight on semblant faire doth waite,
A locke it proves, that first was but a looke:
The fishe with ease into the nett doth glyde,
But to gett out the waie is not so wide.

So long the fly doth dally with the flame,
Untill his singed winges do force his fall;
So long the eye doth followe phancie’s game,
Till love hath left the hart in heavy thrall.
Soone may the mynde be cast in Cupide’s gaile,
But hard it is imprisoned thoughtes to bayle.

O loath that love whose finall ayme is luste,
Moth of the mind, eclipse of reason’s lighte;
The grave of grace, the mole of Nature’s rust,
The wrack of witt, the wronge of every right.
In summe, an evill whose harmes no tongue can tell;
In which to live is death, to die is hell.


A Vale of Tears

A vale there is, enwrapt with dreadful shades,
Which thick of mourning pines shrouds from the sun,
Where hanging cliffs yield short and dumpish glades,
And snowy flood with broken streams doth run.

Where eye-room is from rock to cloudy sky,
From thence to dales with stony ruins strew’d,
Then to the crushèd water’s frothy fry,
Which tumbleth from the tops where snow is thaw’d.

Where ears of other sound can have no choice,
But various blust’ring of the stubborn wind
In trees, in caves, in straits with divers noise;
Which now doth hiss, now howl, now roar by kind.

Where waters wrestle with encount’ring stones,
That break their streams, and turn them into foam,
The hollow clouds full fraught with thund’ring groans,
With hideous thumps discharge their pregnant womb.

And in the horror of this fearful quire
Consists the music of this doleful place;
All pleasant birds from thence their tunes retire,
Where none but heavy notes have any grace.

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.

A place for mated mindes, an only bower
Where everything do soothe a dumpish mood;
Earth lies forlorn, the cloudy sky doth lower,
The wind here weeps, here sighs, here cries aloud.

The struggling flood between the marble groans,
Then roaring beats upon the craggy sides;
A little off, amidst the pebble stones,
With bubbling streams and purling noise it glides.

The pines thick set, high grown and ever green,
Still clothe the place with sad and mourning veil;
Here gaping cliff, there mossy plain is seen,
Here hope doth spring, and there again doth quail.

Huge massy stones that hang by tickle stays,
Still threaten fall, and seem to hang in fear;
Some wither’d trees, ashamed of their decays,
Bereft of green are forced gray coats to wear.

Here crystal springs crept out of secret vein,
Straight find some envious hole that hides their grace;
Here searèd tufts lament the want of rain,
There thunder-wrack gives terror to the place.

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.

When echo shall repeat thy painful cries,
Think that the very stones thy sins bewray,
And now accuse thee with their sad replies,
As heaven and earth shall in the latter day.

Let former faults be fuel of thy fire,
For grief in limbeck of thy heart to still
Thy pensive thoughts and dumps of thy desire,
And vapour tears up to thy eyes at will.

Let tears to tunes, and pains to plaints be press’d,
And let this be the burden of thy song,—
Come, deep remorse, possess my sinful breast;
Delights, adieu!  I harbour’d you too long.

The Burning Babe

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.


Mary Magdalen’s Complaint at Christ’s Death

Sith my life from life is parted,
Death come take thy portion;
Who survives when life is murdred,
Lives by mere extortion:
All that live, and not in God,
Couche their life in deathe’s abode.

Selye starres must nedes leve shyninge
When the sunne is shadowed,
Borowed streames refrayne their runninge
When hed-springes are hindered:
One that lives by other’s breathe,
Dyeth also by his deathe.

O trewe life! sith Thou hast left me,
Mortall life is tedious;
Death it is to live without Thee,
Death of all most odious:
Turne againe or take me to Thee,
Let me dye or live Thou in me!

Where the truth once was and is not,
Shadowes are but vanitye;
Shewinge want, that helpe they cannot,
Signes, not salves, of miserye.
Paynted meate no hunger feedes,
Dyinge life eche death exceedes.

With my love my life was nestled
In the summe of happynes;
From my love my life is wrested
To a world of heavynes:
O lett love my life remove,
Sith I live not where I love!

O my soule! what did unloose thee
From thy sweete captivitye,
God, not I, did still possesse thee,
His, not myne, thy libertie:
O too happy thrall thou wert,
When thy prison was His hart.

Spitefull speare that brak’st this prison,
Seate of all felicitye,
Workinge thus with dooble treason
Love’s and life’s deliverye:
Though my life thou dravst awaye,
Maugre thee my love shall staye.

Source Text 

Turnbull, William B, ed. The Poetical Works of the Rev. Robert Southwell. John Russell Smith, 1856, is licensed under no known copyright.




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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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