The Burning Babe by Robert Southwell (1561–1595)
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, 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.
Robert Southwell was a 16th-century Catholic Jesuit priest and missionary in post-Reformation England. He was also a poet. “The Burning Babe” has been one of his most well-known works since his death (he was executed for his links to the pope, in anti-Catholic post-Reformation England).
Such literary greats as Shakespeare, Drayton, Nashe, Herbert and Crashaw were influenced by his poetry and prose. It is known that Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) said he would be content to destroy many of his own works just to have written “The Burning Babe” himself, for he so loved the poem.
Robert Southwell was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
I believe that his poem is one that, once read, is not easily forgotten. Thank you, Mr Southwell – may you rest in peace.