Saturday, February 02, 2013

Fire and Light on Candlemas Day

For this last appearance of Christmas (until December!), here is a Christmas poem by Robert Southwell (to "hear" the rhythm, words like "scorched" have two syllables; where there is only one, he uses an apostrophe). The imagery fits well with the  "Candle Mass" on this Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

The Burning Babe

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d 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, scorched 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 defiled 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 called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Southwell, an English Jesuit, was a contemporary of (and some say influence on) Shakespeare. As a priest in Elizabethean England, Southwell managed to evade capture for six years of ministry. Writing a book of consolation for the Catholic Earl of Arundel, who was in prison for his Catholic faith, Southwell described his own future fate, and in another major work his attitude toward suffering: "Let God strip you to the skin, yea to the soul, so he stay with you himself."

He was canonized as a martyr in 1975.

Southwell's biography is well worth reading; here is one from a literary perspective.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Burning Babe takes on a deeper meaning in retrospect than it did when I first read it in English Lit. class decades ago.
Thank you for printing it in toto.