The Poets' Chantry/Robert Southwell

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The Poets' Chantry by Katherine Brégy
Robert Southwell


· The Poets' Chantry ·




"As the highest Gospel was a biography, so," asserts Carlyle, "is the life of every good man still an indubitable gospel." It is, indeed, the simplest and first of all evangels, the evangel of fact: and when by happy consummation it becomes also the evangel of beauty the crown is assured. The world is hungry for inspiration, and sooner or later will capitulate. The meek shall possess the land, the martyr shall reign, even the poet shall be listened to at last.

There is Robert Southwell, for instance—onetime priest of the Society of Jesus, onetime prisoner in the Tower of London town, onetime laureate of the Elizabethan Catholics—whose story no one can read to-day without more than an intellectual interest. To say that he is best worth knowing for the sublimity of his personal character is to indicate the chasm separating him from the great body of Elizabethan songsters. His memory is not, as so frequently happens, sanctified by his art; rather is his art sanctified by the life which produced it. And yet one would not willingly forget that the young priest's immortality is mainly due to the unique charm of his literary work. "It marks not only the large Roman Catholic element in the country but also the strange contrasts of the times," comments Dr. Stopford Brooke, "that eleven editions [of his works] were published between 1595 and 1609, at a time when the Venus and Adonis of Shakespeare led the way for a multitude of poems that sung of love and delight in England's glory." Such was once his popularity; and, although that may have lapsed for ever now, the critics are not alone in insisting upon Father Southwell's permanent place in our literature. His poetry, so strangely free from the glad, passionate earthliness of most Elizabethan lyrics, is full of quaint, fanciful grace—of the grace, too, that follows deep religious fervour. The hopes, the fears, the pathetic weariness of Catholics in those evil days, all entered into his work; these, and the tender mysticism which bound them like a spell to the Old Religion. Yet, when all is said, the man's life is in itself our choicest heritage—his life as poet, as priest, and at last, as martyr.

Robert Southwell's birth is usually placed somewhere in 1561; a year which saw two events memorable in English history—the arrival on Scottish shores of the young Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth's final break with the Papacy in her refusal to send envoys to the Council of Trent. He was the third son of Richard Southwell, head of a prominent Catholic family of Horsham St. Faith's, Norfolk; it is interesting also to note that his maternal grandmother was a Shelley, and of the same family which later gave birth to the "Skylark" poet. Robert's adventures seem to have begun in the very cradle, whence he was stolen by some wandering gypsies; but, as the theft was promptly discovered, it bore no serious consequence. Far more significant is the fact that at a very early age the boy was sent to school at Douay, where a seminary had been established to supply the needs of English Catholics. Here, in the person of Leonard Lessius, he first came into intimate contact with the Society of Jesus, destined to be so potent a factor in his life. Later, at Paris, his studies were continued under the guidance of Thomas Darbyshire, a zealous soul and one of the first Englishmen to enter that Order. The Catholic mind will scarcely need any comment on the ardour and self-consecration of these early Jesuits, but it is edifying to read the following tribute from such a critic as Dr. Alexander B. Grosart, in his "Memorial Introduction" to Southwell's Poems: "The name of Ignatius Loyola was still a recent 'memory' and power, and his magnificent and truly apostolic example of burning love, compassion, faith, zeal, self-denial, charged the very atmosphere with sympathy as with electricity. . . . The Society was then in its first fresh 'love' and force, unentangled with political action (real or alleged); and I pity the Protestant who does not recognise in Loyola and his disciples noble men . . . with the single object to win allegiance to Jesus Christ." There is nothing to surprise in the fact that the colossal Jesuit hope of winning back Europe to Catholic Christianity should have appealed to the earnest young English student, or that their lives should have excited his passionate admiration; but it is worth noting that while still in his early teens Robert Southwell should have formed a life-purpose, from which he never wavered. To "leave all," to take up the Cross, and bear it back to the old forsaken shrines, became the one dream of this elect young soul. He applied for admission into the Society of Jesus; and, being refused because of his youth, wrote an impassioned Lament expressing his disappointment. Delay tried, but did not in the least shake, his determination; so finally the coveted consent was obtained, and on the 17th October, 1578, his name was formally entered "amongst the children" of St. Ignatius. Two years later he took minor orders in Rome, and made his first vows as a scholastic of the Society. Then followed four peaceful years of study, during which Southwell was occupied with philosophy and divinity, and, incidentally it seems, with verse-making. In this case the "poetic temperament" was evidently quite compatible with hard work, for the brilliancy of his labours soon won him the prefecture of the English College at Rome. It was in 1584—probably his own twenty-fourth year—that Robert Southwell received the final rites of ordination, and stood prepared to begin his apostolic ministry.

Almost simultaneously, a law was passed in England (27 Elizabeth, c. 2) declaring any native-born subject who had entered the Catholic priesthood since the first year of the Queen's accession, and who thereafter resided more than forty days on English soil, to be a traitor, and liable to the penalty of death. Severe as it was, it nowise dampened the ardour of the Jesuits in general, nor of Robert Southwell in particular. The English mission—if most interesting—was obviously one of the most perilous in Europe: religious fanaticism had been aggravated and embittered by political hostility; the air was dark with con-spiracies for and against the imprisoned Queen of Scots; and the whole country was, to quote Mr. Turnbull's Memoir, "in a ferment of political intrigues." Alarmed by Catholic successes abroad, Elizabeth redoubled the rigour of her Uniformity Acts; the celebration of Mass was forbidden even in private houses, the fines of recusants were increased, and over every Catholic lowered the shadow of high treason. But what was a stone about the neck of the layman became a knife at the throat of the priest; upon him fell the real weight of the persecution, for him the main work of martyrdom was reserved. Against Jesuits, as supposed tools of the Papacy to sow treason in England, popular hatred was even more intense; they were "tracked by pursuivants and spies, dragged from their hiding-places, and sent in batches to the Tower." Then from dungeon to scaffold was but a little way. And all this was done, of course, in the name of justice, on purely political grounds! "To modern eyes," as Green very aptly remarks, "there is something even more revolting than open persecution in a policy which branded every Catholic priest as a traitor, and all Catholic worship as disloyalty."

But had not Ignatius Loyola besought for his followers this legacy of persecution? And never a prayer so promptly answered! Seventy priests had already gone into banishment, not to mention those who had suffered death, when, on 8 May, 1586, two more intrepid missionaries set out for the island. One of them was Father Garnett, subsequently head of the English Jesuits; the other, Robert Southwell. In spite of spies, who somehow ascertained their coming, the priests succeeded in landing in July, and in reaching the house of Lord Vaux of Harrowden, whither they were later joined by others of the Society. There was plenty of work for them to do; there was also plenty of danger. Father Southwell, who passed in secular society by the name of Cotton and who is described as a man of middle height and auburn hair, seems to have been watched rather narrowly from the beginning. It was worse than a dog's life for them all, and the necessary precautions were irksome. Father Gerard, one of his companions, tells how the young priest tried to familiarise himself with terms of sport for the purpose of conversing with Protestant nobles, and adds that he "used often to complain of his bad memory for such things." On the other hand, one can well imagine how comforting the presence of this earnest, sympathetic soul was to his co-religionists, to whom he ministered largely in London, with occasional journeys to the north of England. "He much excelled," says Father Gerard, "in the art of helping and gaining souls, being at once prudent, pious, meek, and exceedingly winning."

Almost the first of Father Southwell's cares was to win back the wavering faith of his father and his brother. The former, who had married a Protestant lady of the Court, was restored to his birthright by a most eloquent and inimitable epistle from his son. "Howsoever," it concludes, after playing upon almost every key of emotion, "the soft gales of your morning pleasures lulled you into slumbers, however the violent heat of noon might awake affections, yet now in the cool and calm of the evening retire to a Christian rest, and close up the day of your life with a clear sunset."

In 1589 Father Southwell became chaplain and confessor to the Countess of Arundel, whose husband, Philip Howard, was then confined in the Tower. There followed several years of comparative safety at Arundel House in the Strand, during which began his real literary activity. Triumphs over Death, perhaps his first known work, was occasioned by the death of a certain "noble lady" of the Howards, and was designed as a comfort and check to inordinate grief. Notes on Theology, and other prose works mostly of a theological nature, date also from these years. But it is improbable that any of his English poems were yet composed. From Father Gerard we learn that Southwell set up a private printing press; from which it would appear that the "apostolate of the press" is not altogether a recent idea. However, Mary Magdalen's Funeral Tears, one of his most popular compositions, and model of Thomas Nash's Christ's Tears over Jerusalem, was printed by Cawood with a licence. None of these works was signed, but the Government seems somehow to have suspected the authorship.

The letters written by Father Southwell during these years reveal the Catholic life of the day with terrible simplicity. Mary Stuart had bowed her weary head upon the block; the Spanish Armada had come and gone, uniting Catholic and Protestant in a common zeal to protect England; it would seem that Elizabeth had no longer much need to fear the Old Religion. Yet the persecutions went on with pitiless insistence. "The condition of Catholic recusants here," wrote Father Southwell in 1590, "is the same as usual, deplorable and full of fears and dangers, more especially since our adversaries have looked for wars. As many as are in chains rejoice, and are comforted in their prisons; and they that are at liberty set not their hearts upon it, nor expect it to be of long continuance. All, by the great goodness and mercy of God, arm themselves to suffer anything that can come, how hard soever it may be, as it shall please our Lord . . . A little while ago they apprehended two priests, who have suffered such cruel treatment in the prison of Bridewell as can scarce be believed. . . . Some are there hung up for whole days by the hands, in such manner that they can but just touch the ground with the tips of their toes . . . This purgatory we are looking for every hour, in which Topcliffe and Young, the two executioners of the Catholics, exercise all kinds of torments. But come what pleaseth God, we hope we shall be able to bear all 'in Him that strengthens us.'" Even through this darkness, eyes of faith caught gleams of a coming sunrise. "It seems to me," he wrote later that year, in words which were to prove so deeply prophetic, "that I see the beginning of a religious life set on foot in England, of which we now sow the seeds with tears, that others hereafter may with joy carry in the sheaves to the heavenly granaries. . . . With such dews as these the Church is watered. . . . We also look for the time (if we are not unworthy of so great a glory) when our day (like that of the hired servant) shall come."

His day was, in fact, not long to be deferred. In 1592 Father Southwell made a dangerous acquaintance in the person of Richard Bellamy of Uxenden Hall, one of whose kinsmen had been executed in connection with the "Babington Conspiracy," and every member of whose family was under suspicion as to his belief. The young Jesuit said Mass at their home and ministered to the whole household, until the storm-cloud suddenly broke above their heads. Anne Bellamy, a young daughter, was chosen as the Government's first victim. She was confined in the Gatehouse at Westminster under the care of one Nicholas Jones, and the story of her double fall is as brief as it is ugly. Having lost both faith and virtue, the girl was soon persuaded to the final baseness of betraying her family and her friends. From her the savage Topcliffe learned that Richard Bellamy was in the habit of receiving Father Southwell and other priests at his home; he learned the manner of their coming and other details; then, like Judas of old, he acted quickly.

On 20 June, Southwell rode over to Uxenden with Thomas Bellamy—some say in hopes of ministering to Anne, who herself had written for him—and fell directly into Topeliffe's snare. "I never did take so weighty a man, if he be rightly used," wrote that officer to the Queen; and the sinister meaning of his words was soon apparent. The young priest was brutally tortured in his captor's own house; then sent to West-minster, under the care of the scoundrel who had now become Anne Bellamy's husband. In September a new entry appeared in the records of the grim Tower of London, that of "Robert Southwell, alias Cotton, a Jesuit and infamous traitor"; and the old gruesome story was repeated. His fortitude during these ordeals coerced the admiration of Cecil himself. "There is," the latter wrote, "at present confined one Southwell, a Jesuit, who, thirteen times most cruelly tortured, cannot be induced to confess anything, not even the colour of a horse whereon on a certain day he rode, lest from such indication his adversaries might conjecture in what house, or in what company of Catholics, he that day was."

Persecution makes of some men misanthropes; of others, saints; of Father Southwell it made a poet. Broken by torture, imprisoned in the darkness and filthiness of the dungeon, he still worked for his beloved people—and, unable to speak, he sang. His spirit was like that pure frankincense of which Lyly tells us that it "smelleth most sweet when it is in the fire." Dr. Grosart opines that the entire body of his poetical work was produced in prison, and this, being true, adds enormously to its interest and its pathos. The Government, no doubt in hopes of forcing some revelation, kept him awaiting trial over three years. During most of this time he was confined in a dungeon so unspeakably noisome that Richard Southwell finally petitioned the Queen that his son be put to death if he deserved it, or else, as he was a gentleman, that he be treated as such. This protest availed somewhat, for the prisoner was allowed to receive clothing and a few other necessaries and even some books; of which, however, he asked only for the Bible and St. Bernard.

At last, in 1595—and without any previous warning, says the St. Omer MS.—he was hurried off to Westminster and placed on trial for High Treason. The courtesy, dignity and Christian meekness of Father Southwell throughout this travesty of justice were most impressive. When questioned, he pleaded "not guilty of any treason"; but he freely acknowledged the only crime with which he was charged—that of fulfilling the duties of a Catholic priest to his suffering co-religionists. The result was fore-ordained; England had a law, "and by that law he ought to die." Once more torture did its revolting work upon his much-tried body; then, at dawn next morning, his gaoler bore him the final summons. "You could not bring me more joyful tidings," the priest answered simply.

So at daybreak, on 22 or 23 February, 1595, he was placed in a sledge and drawn to Tyburn for execution. Bishop Challoner tells us that a notorious highwayman was executed on the same day to divert popular attention from Father Southwell's doom; nevertheless, the usual mob awaited him. The priest who was to pour out his life-blood for these English people, the poet who had sung to them from his dungeon, gazed down upon the upturned faces—upon the hostile, the friendly, and the merely curious. Then, signing himself with the Cross, he began to speak. "Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or

The Poet's Chantry pg 011f retouch.jpg

Robert Southwell, S.J.
From an old print

whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Therefore whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord's." The words were scarcely uttered before the sheriff attempted some interruption; but silence being regained, the young priest continued, craving of the "most clement God and Father of Mercies," forgiveness "for all things wherein I may have offended since my infancy. Then, as regards the Queen (to whom I have never done nor wished any evil), I have daily prayed for her, and now with all my heart do pray, that from His great mercy . . . He may grant that she may use the ample gifts and endowments wherewith He hath endowed her to the immortal glory of His name, the prosperity of the whole nation, and the eternal welfare of her soul and body. For my most miserable and with all tears to be pitied country, I pray the light of truth whereby, the darkness of ignorance being dispelled, it may learn in and above all things to praise God, and seek its eternal good in the right way."

There is a quite superlative pathos in these prayers of the condemned man for the Queen and country which thus repudiated him. Far ahead into the future of England his thoughts were wandering, when suddenly he returned to the awful present. "For what may be done to my body," he cried, "I have no care. But since death, in the admitted cause for which I die, cannot be otherwise than most happy and desirable, I pray the God of all comfort that it may be to me the complete cleansing of my sins, and a real solace and increase of faith to others. For I die because I am a Catholic priest, elected unto the Society of Jesus in my youth; nor has any other thing, during the last three years in which I have been imprisoned, been charged against me. This death, therefore, although it may now seem base and ignominious, can to no rightly thinking person appear doubtful but that it is beyond measure an eternal weight of glory to be wrought in us, who look not to the things which are visible, but to those which are unseen."

The simple spiritual grandeur of this valediction sank into the hearts of the listening multitude, and won them, in spite of Protestant detractors, to the martyr's side. The executioner did his work clumsily, which added extra torment to Father Southwell's death; but to the last he calmly commended his soul to its Maker. One is comforted in this dark history to read that the mob itself prevented his body being taken down before dead, as the sentence had directed. "May my soul be with this man's!" exclaimed Lord Mountjoy, a bystander; and when the poor, severed head was held aloft to the public gaze, not one voice was heard to cry "Traitor."

The world, after its wont, was kinder to the man's work than to the man himself. Three volumes of his productions—already even popular, as it seems—were published immediately after Father Southwell's death; and they were followed by a host of others. In a very eminent degree was this young Jesuit the "poet of Roman Catholic England"; but he was not merely the poet of any single class. He spoke to the sorrowful and serious of soul, to the meek and the devout; and the Old Faith and the New ceased their warfare to listen. The longest and most ambitious of his poems, but by no means his best, is St. Peter's Complaint. The ever sympathetic Dr. Grosart anticipates a very natural objection in pointing out that "regarded as so many distinct studies of the tragic incident, it is ignorance and not knowledge that will pronounce it tedious or idly para-phrastic," for the constant play of fancy is too redundant for modern readers. Such striking passages as the following, however, do much to relieve the monotony:—

At Sorrow's door I knocked, they craved my name:
I answered, one unworthy to be known.
What one? say they. One worthiest of blame.
But who? A wretch, not God's nor yet his own.
A man? Oh no! a beast; much worse. What creature?
A rock. How called? The rock of scandal, Peter!

Throughout his shorter poems Father Southwell shows to truer advantage. It was inevitable that the minor notes of life should have struck deepest echo in our poet's heart. Their very titles, Scorn Not the Least, Life is but Loss, What Joy to Live? etc., carry a message which those that run may read. But their sadness is utterly without bitterness or pessimism, their weariness of life always presses on to a hope beyond. A few lines from Times go by Turns will serve to illustrate the beauty, even the cheerfulness, of his thought:—

Not always fall of leaf, nor ever spring,
No endless night, yet not eternal day;
The saddest birds a season find to sing,
The roughest storm a calm may soon allay;
Thus with succeeding turns God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall.

But the most masterful of Father Southwell's lyrics—the lyric, indeed, to claim which Drummond of Hawthornden tells us Ben Jonson would willingly have destroyed more than one of his own poems,—is the famous


BURNING-BABE.

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 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 these He vanished out of sight, and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callèd unto mind that it was Christmas Day.

This deep religious fervour permeates the poet's entire work, not merely the Mæoniæ, a series on the life of our Saviour and His Mother, but even the shortest lyric, without, I think, one single exception. He bitterly regretted the worldliness of most Elizabethan verse, complaining in one of his Introductions that "The finest wits are now given to write passionate discourses." To-day, perhaps, we see the deep human value of many of these same "passionate discourses" more clearly than did the pious young priest; nor can we resist smiling a little at his ingenious recasting of Master Dyer's "Fancy," wherein the subject is made to mourn a lack of grace instead of love! But the constancy and depth of this devotion, and the delicacy of imagination which accompanied it, both charm and coerce our admiration. They are the characteristics of his prose as well as his verse—they are the dominant, unmistakable notes of his personality. And if, in his own words, his work be "coarse in respect of others' exquisite labours," we shall not easily forget the circumstances which called it into being: the "evident fact," to quote Mr. Saintsbury, "that the author thought of nothing else than of merely cultivating the Muses."

Two obvious defects to be found in Southwell's works are extravagance of metaphor and an almost monotonous habit of playing upon words; for both of which, however, the age must be held responsible. When one recalls the years during which he wrote—the vogue of the sonnet-sequences, of Euphues, Arcadia, and the Faerie Queene—it is understood that "conceits" were in the very air. Sir Philip Sidney himself, we remember, has somewhere compared a white horse speckled with red to "a few strawberries scattered in a dish of cream!" And the fundamental merit of Father Southwell's poetry has ever been recognised by the best critics, his literary influence being to-day more and more appreciated. This influence is very manifest in the poems of Richard Crashaw; and the lines from Scorn Not the Least

He that the growth on cedars did bestow,
Gave also lowly mushrooms leave to grow—

find an echo in Blake's Tiger. "As a whole," summarises Dr. Grosart, "his poetry is healthy and strong, and I think has been more potential in our literature than appears on the surface. I do not think it would be hard to show that others of whom more is heard drew light from him, as well early as more recent, from Burns to Thomas Hood."


Biography is, after all, the best history; and the life of Robert Southwell reveals one phase of Elizabethan England better than a dozen commentaries. It is not, indeed, the phase oftenest remembered. In the stirring political drama of the day, in the clash of arms and clash of wits through which England was led to unprecedented material splendour, he played but little part. Still further was he from the wild Bohemianism of Greene and Marlowe, or the mature artistic glory of those who congregated at the old Mermaid Tavern. But there was a darker, sadder undercurrent to this rushing tide of Elizabethan life. There was the ardent Catholic minority, nowise deaf to the call of the young intellectual life, nor blind to the signs of England's growing strength—sensitive, indeed, to every vital influence—yet compelled into hostile inactivity. Adherents of the Old Faith were shut out from both the great Universities; they had no part in the administration of justice; they were ineligible for any public office in the kingdom. Thus a great body of men with the culture of the New Learning and the passion of the Renaissance were found marching not with but against the trend of their age. Some of them sought adventure overseas, or plunged into purely secular activity; others, already forced into disloyalty, spent their time plotting a change in government, and were the easy prey of each new conspiracy. Still others, purified by persecution, rose above the heat and bitterness of personal feud to apostolic zeal and endurance, and fought the losing fight so nobly that in their very defeat lay the assurance of an abiding victory. Of these last was Robert Southwell.