Authors: Robert Southwell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet

Identity: Catholic

Author Works


Saint Peter’s Complaint, with Other Poems, 1595

Moeoniae, 1595

A Foure-Fould Meditation of the Foure Last Things, 1605

The Complete Poems of Robert Southwell, 1872 (Alexander B. Grosart, editor)

The Poems of Robert Southwell, 1967 (James H. McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown, editors)


A Hundred Meditations on the Love of God, wr. c. 1585, pb. 1873

Epistle of a Robert Southwell to His Father, Exhorting Him to the Perfect Forsaking of the World, 1589

Mary Magdalens Funerall Teares, 1591

An Humble Supplication to Her Majestie, wr. 1591, pb. 1595

The Triumphs over Death: Or, A Consolatory Epistle for Afflicted Minds, in the Affects of Dying Friends, wr. 1591, pb. 1596

An Epistle of Comfort, wr. 1591, pb. 1605

His Letter to Sir Robert Cecil, 1593

A Short Rule of Good Life: To Direct the Devout Christian in a Regular and Orderly Course, 1596

Two Letters and Short Rules of a Good Life, 1973 (Nancy Pollard Brown, editor)


Robert Southwell, while now known mostly for the highly anthologized lyric “The Burning Babe,” is important in the history of English poetry for anticipating the mode of religious poetry that would prevail in the following century. A Jesuit priest in Elizabethan England, where practicing Catholicism was a capital crime, Southwell expressed his faith in prose and poetry until the queen’s pursuivants made him a martyr to that faith.{$I[AN]9810001624}{$I[A]Southwell, Robert}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Southwell, Robert}{$I[geo]CATHOLIC;Southwell, Robert}{$I[tim]1561;Southwell, Robert}

Southwell’s early education was in Douai, where many English Catholics found refuge and trained for the priesthood. His later studies at Paris (probably after 1575) placed him under the tutelage of the English Jesuit Thomas Darbyshire, in whose footsteps Southwell followed by joining the Jesuit order in 1580. He was sent to Rome as prefect of studies, a precocious appointment for a young man still in his teens. He was ordained in 1584. Because his early education took place on the Continent, the young Southwell had trouble remembering his English, and it has been suggested that his earliest poetry, which consists of translations from Spanish religious verse, was undertaken at least partly to strengthen his command of English.

During this time in Rome, or perhaps shortly after in England, Southwell wrote one of his most famous prose works, Mary Magdalens Funerall Teares, although the work was not published until 1591. Its prose style is very rich, almost poetic in its rhythmic effects. Many modern critics have a pronounced distaste for such a style, known as euphuistic. It is marked by heavy use of balance and parallelism, rhythmic repetitions, elaborate conceits, and appeals to emotion.

In the summer of 1586 Southwell was sent to England to be part of the “English mission” of the Jesuit order. Southwell remained in disguise and often stayed only a step or two ahead of the authorities, called pursuivants, sent to apprehend Catholic priests. While on the run in this way Southwell composed a second euphuistic prose piece, An Epistle of Comfort. This emotional appeal to the persecuted Catholic priests in England urged them to bear up under their hardships; Southwell’s own example was as eloquent as his prose.

The formal epistle became Southwell’s most effective mode of writing during his English mission. A letter to his brother, and a later one to his father, dated October 22, 1589, show some of Southwell’s most effective prose, abandoning the elaborate baroque style of the Epistle of Comfort and adopting a more direct style that made them worth publishing in seventeenth century editions of Southwell’s works. He kept this simpler style in order to speak directly to those who considered him their enemy in what is probably the last prose work written before his capture by the pursuivants, An Humble Supplication to Her Majestie, written before the end of 1591. The Humble Supplication was just that: a heartfelt plea for justice, asserting that it was possible to be a Roman Catholic without being a traitor to England and her queen.

Finally, on June 24, 1592, the pursuivant Richard Topcliffe captured Southwell. He was subjected to torture repeatedly in order to force from him information about other Catholics in England. He refused to divulge any, and so on March 4, 1595, he was hanged, and then drawn and quartered, publicly in London. Eyewitnesses recorded that the crowd, which usually shouted “Traitor!” when the heads of the executed prisoners were raised, was silent at the sight of Southwell’s.

In the year of his death, London booksellers sold many editions of Southwell’s work, and his poetry appeared in print for the first time. It was immediately and sensationally popular. There is no way to date the composition of these poems accurately, but many were clearly early works dating from his priestly formation in Rome, and many were no doubt written in prison. A preface, which takes the form of a euphuistic epistle to the author’s cousin (identity unknown), describes Southwell’s poetic goal as reclaiming poetry from the service of profane love and bringing it back to the service of God. In this aim Southwell anticipates some of the Metaphysical poets of the following century. George Herbert’s famous letter to his mother in 1610 announcing similar aims of turning secular love poetry to the love of God inaugurated two generations of devotional poetry in England, but Southwell’s anticipation of this trend twenty years earlier is not always acknowledged.

One work that illustrated Southwell’s principle is his longest poem, Saint Peter’s Complaint, a 792-line exploration of the storms of emotion experienced by Peter after denying Christ. The “complaint” was a popular genre in sixteenth century love poetry, based on the fourteenth century love poetry of Petrarch, in which the speaker “complained” about the way in which his beloved ignored or did not return his love. The secular love poetry of Southwell’s era had been largely of this type; Southwell adapted the form to religious poetry. In doing so, he anticipated forms of devotional, meditative poetry that would usher in the most prolific era of English religious poetry ever.

BibliographyBrownlow, F. W. Robert Southwell. New York: Twayne, 1996. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Southwell. Includes bibliographic references and an index.Caraman, Philip. A Study in Friendship: Saint Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet. St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995. This slim volume from religion scholar Caraman contains a bibliography and an index.Janelle, Pierre. Robert Southwell the Writer: A Study in Religious Inspiration. 1935. Reprint. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: Paul J. Appel, 1971. Though a relatively “old” book, Janelle’s biography–the first three chapters of the book–remains the standard account of the life of Southwell. The other chapters concerning Jesuit influence, Petrarchan origins, and Southwell’s place among his contemporaries have stood the test of time. Contains an extensive bibliography.Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954. In a relatively brief overview of Southwell’s poetic achievements, Lewis states that Southwell is of most historical interest as an early Metaphysical poet (his verse particularly resembles George Herbert’s). Lewis also addresses the religious content of Southwell’s poetry.Martz, Louis L. The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn. Yale University Press, 1962. Martz examines Southwell’s meditative poetry which looks ahead to the religious poetry of the seventeenth century in its adapting “profane” poetic devices to religious poetry, in its poetic meditations on the lives of Christ and Mary, and in its Ignatian self-analysis. He also demonstrates close ties between Southwell and George Herbert.Moseley, D. H. Blessed Robert Southwell. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1957. A sympathetic biography drawn from late sixteenth century writings and records, which provides an understanding of the cultural, religious, and political climate in which Southwell lived and wrote. Supplemented by a chronological select bibliography of Southwell criticism.Scallon, Joseph D. The Poetry of Robert Southwell, S.J. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1975. Scallon’s monograph provides chapters on Southwell’s biography, his short poems (particularly those concerning Christ and the Virgin Mary), and the poems on repentance. St. Peter’s Complaint, Southwell’s best poem, receives extensive analysis. Contains a substantial bibliography.
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