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The Burning Babe
Robert Southwell, SJ
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, scorchèd 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 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.
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.  This week, I’ve chosen a poem by Robert Southwell, “The Burning Babe.” Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Thank you, Scott.
Robert Southwell is a fascinating figure. He was born in 1561 into an English Catholic family, and lived his entire life under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when it was illegal to practice the Catholic faith, and priests were not allowed to enter England on pain of death. Nevertheless, at the age of 15, Southwell headed to Europe to study for the priesthood in Douai, France and later in Rome. He entered the Jesuits and was ordained at 23. After a few years in Europe, he asked for the difficult and dangerous assignment of serving as a clandestine missionary in his native land. His return to England was watched by spies, and over the next few years he wrote and ministered in secret, moving from safe house to safe house, often using a pseudonym.
Queen Elizabeth’s priest-hunters caught up with Southwell at Uxendon Hall in Harrow in 1592. He was arrested and spent the next three years in the Tower of London, where the notorious Richard Topcliffe tortured him repeatedly. In 1595, he was brought to trial and sentenced to death by hanging at Tyburn. As he died, he repeated the words of Jesus on the cross: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Southwell was beatified in 1929, and canonized in 1970.
Southwell lived in a great age of poets – he was a contemporary of Shakespeare (to whom he may have been related), Mary Sidney, and John Donne—and poetry was an important part of his ministry. His poems, which were very Catholic, were widely read and shared. “The Burning Babe” is one of his best-known lyrics.
This poem is written in long lines of 14 syllables, and it has a simple quality, almost a sing-song rhythm, like a folk song. But the imagery is anything but simple. Southwell’s poem is built around a conceit, which is a literary term for an elaborate, and often strange, comparison. The beginning of the poem gives us a vivid contrast between dark and light, cold and heat. “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.” The warmth and light come from a “pretty Babe all burning bright.” This infant weeps so copiously that the speaker is surprised the flames are not extinguished. The child does not weep from the pain of the flames; rather, he weeps because “none approach to warm their hearts.”
In a way that’s very typical of the poetry of his time, Southwell brings great meaning to every aspect of the comparison. Every detail means something. The child is the furnace. “Love is the fire.” Justice adds the fuel. Mercy “blows the coals,” making the fire even hotter. The smoke is “sighs,” the ashes “shames and scorns.” And the metal worked on in this furnace is human souls.
The comparison is not Southwell’s invention. The prophet Malachi uses the image of the Messiah as a blacksmith: “Who can endure the day of his coming?... He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or silver” (Malachi 3:3). In Southwell’s image, Christ is not the blacksmith, but the crucible itself; and the bath in which this metal will be tempered is his blood.
At the end of Southwell’s poem, the sudden vision vanishes, and the speaker realizes: “straight I callèd unto mind that it was Christmas day.” It’s such a strange image, isn’t it, and perhaps it may not seem very “Christmassy.” We are accustomed to cozy images on Christmas, aren’t we—light and warmth, for sure, but not fire. And yet, Christmas and Good Friday are not very far apart. In the familiar words of the carol, “I wonder as I wander / Out under the sky, / How Jesus the Savior / Did come for to die.” Southwell, a martyr himself who saw many friends martyred, understood that reality. Jesus is born so that he can redeem us on the cross, and in some sense, the beginning of his life is the beginning of his passion.
Jesus shares our life, so that we can share in his; he is born so that we can come to new life in him. In the liturgy of Christmas Day, the Church prays: “Grant…  that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” It’s a prayer for transformation—the transformation the “burning babe” came to work in each of us.




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