Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Words on Wednesday: The Burning Babe

The liturgical season of Christmas continues until Jan. 6, so here's another Christmas-related poem.

English poet Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest serving as a surreptitious Catholic missionary in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. She had passed an act asserting that any English priest of the Catholic church was not to remain on English soil for more than 40 days. He was arrested in 1592 and spent an month enduring torture by Richard Topcliffe and the privy council before being moved to the Tower of London for another two years. In 1595, he was found guilty of treason and executed by being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Southwell wrote "The Burning Babe" shortly before his death. It was part of a collection of poetry he wrote while in prison, and the volume was dedicated to his cousin, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare uses imagery that reflects the poem in Scene 7, Act 1 of Macbeth when he casts Pity as a naked, newborn babe crying out at the injustice of Macbeth's murder of Duncan.

The Burning Babe
     by Robert Southwell
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 bred:
‘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, shames 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 vanish’d out of sight
And swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callèd unto mind
That it was Christmas Day.
Photo by Ian Britton

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