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Southwell, Robert (1561–1595) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Robert Southwell, perhaps the most important recusant poet of the latter sixteenth century, was born to a noble Catholic family, though his grandfather, Sir Richard Southwell, had been an efficient courtier in the service of Henry VIII, responsible for the downfall of his companion Henry Howard, earl of Surrey,* and for the confiscation and ruination of many Catholic monasteries, including the ruined Priory of Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk, where Robert was born in 1561. At age fifteen, he was sent to Flanders to study at the University of Douay and was received into the Jesuit-run Anchin College. After six months, he was “evacuated” with his fellow students to the College of Clermont in Paris, where he studied for perhaps one year before traveling to the English College in Rome with the intention of joining the Jesuits. After what he regarded as insufferable delay, he was admitted as a novice to the Society of Jesus on 17 October 1578 at the age of sixteen. Two years later he took first vows, and beginning in 1582 he served as “repetitor,” responsible for tutorial work. He was ordained in 1584, and by early that summer “Padre Roberto Southwello” had become prefect of studies at the English College.

On 8 May 1586 he set forth with Father Henry Garnet for England, where his fellow Jesuit Edmund Campion had been executed soon after arriving from Rome in 1580. Southwell had expressed more than once his willingness, even desire, to follow Campion and other English martyrs “to the desired port.” So, after a ten-year stay upon the Continent, he set foot on the terrestrial port of England on the Feast of St. Thomas Becket, 17 July 1586, one month before the failed Babbington Plot.

Soon after his arrival, his new superior, Father Weston, was executed, and Southwell took his place as chaplain and confessor in the house of Sir Philip Howard, earl of Arundel. Since he left the household only in disguise, his residence at Arundel may be regarded as a rather luxurious house arrest, affording him long hours for literary and nonliterary work. Eventually, he rented private quarters in London, where he housed and operated a secret printing press, in lieu of a public pulpit. He remained at large for six years, writing, attending to the spiritual needs of the Catholic nobility, and fostering literary connections with his cousin Anthony Copley and his friend Thomas Lodge, as well as with an impressive litany of literary descendants within the houses of the nobility.

In January 1592 he was captured by the infamous Topcliffe “the priest-hunter,” who reported to the queen that he “did never tayke so weightye a man.” At the Gatehouse Prison Southwell was tortured and interrogated by, among others, his kinsman Sir Robert Cecil, who was impressed by the young priest’s heroic endurance, having been thirteen times put to “a new kind of torture no less cruel than the rack.” In July, having come forth with no information, he was removed to the Tower, where he remained until 1595, when he was finally brought to trial. The outcome was predictable, but the proceedings, recorded in some detail, are testament to Southwell’s eloquence, patience, and wit, though most memorable is his plain response to Topcliffe’s defense of the use of torture: “Thou art a bad man.” On Friday, 4 March, Southwell was drawn through the streets of London, and, after making a stirring avowal of his loyalty to the queen, his priesthood, and the Catholic Church, he was hanged and quartered according to the sentence handed down by the court.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Robert Southwell is the literary embodiment of the English Counter Reformation, a fact that itself accounts for his relative obscurity. He ardently believed and openly professed that the reforming of English literature was an intricate and vital part of his spiritual mission. Eloquently conversant with the Christian classicism of the European Renaissance, Southwell sought to propagate in England the sort of religious literary rebirth that was occurring on the Continent. That the divine art of poetry should be put to frivolous and immoral use by his countrymen and that poets should spend their time in making “idle fancies” were abhorrent to Southwell. He wrote to his cousin, “Poets by abusing their talent, and making the follies and fayninges of love, the customary subject of their base endeavors, have so discredited this facultie, that a Poet, a Lover, and a Liar, are by many reckoned but three words of one signification.” Southwell urged his fellow poets to embrace sacred themes, to lift poetry from the pagan mire into which it had been dragged.

The extraordinary footnote to this one-man literary Reformation is its unpredictable, unlikely, and uncanny success. That the likes of Ben Jonson* and Shakespeare’s* patron, Southampton, gave ear to this young Jesuit’s pleas for divine poetry is interesting, but of far greater significance is the recognition that in the person of Robert Southwell one finds the unintentional and unconsecrated father of English metaphysical poetry. Southwell’s intimacy with, and reliance upon, Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises , which prescribes imaginative narrative and an engagement of the five senses to the art of mediation, gave birth in English to the meditative verse that would characterize so much of the poetry of the early seventeenth century. Those characteristics by which we now describe metaphysical poetry—the dramatic opening, the argued metaphor, the eccentric conceit, self-introspection and spiritual ascent—are all to be found in the poetry of Robert Southwell.

Since all of these metaphysical qualities are found in “The Burning Babe,” I should not object to its frequent anthologization. The poem, after all, should not be blamed for reducing Southwell’s place in the literary canon to an eccentric one-hit wonder. But, though representative, it is neither his finest nor his fullest work. In the sustained excellence of the sequence from which that poem is taken, “The Sequence on the Virgin Mary and Christ,” or in the 792–line “Saint Peter’s Complaint,” one recognizes, I think, Southwell’s full poetic power. Here, as in the ethereal splendor of “A Vale of Tears” and the personal drama of “Looke Home” or “What Joy to Live?” one sees and hears in South-well what Donne,* Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughn, and Traherne all clearly saw and heard.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Collected and published immediately after his execution, Southwell’s poetry served primarily to influence poets in the seventeenth century and occasionally poets during later ages such as Hopkins, for whom Southwell was his only important Jesuit literary ancestor. Southwell’s literary canonization, however, occurred with fitting simultaneity with his religious canonization at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Complete Poems of Robert Southwell was published for the first time in 1872 by Alexander B. Grosart. The first evaluation of Southwell as an important literary figure was accomplished in two articles by Father Hurston in The Month in 1895. In 1935 Pierre Janelle published Robert Southwell the Writer , a thorough consideration of the poet’s development, which includes a studied biography. This book’s remarkable contribution to an understanding of Southwell remains undiminished by time. Louis Martz’s treatment of Southwell in his book The Poetry of Meditation (1954) and his placement of Southwell as the first poet in English Seventeenth Century Verse v. 1 (1963) did much to exhibit the connection among religious mediation, Robert Southwell, and seventeenth-century religious poets. Christopher Delvin’s Life of Robert Southwell (1956) presents in one chapter a compelling, if not wholly convincing, case for South-well’s influence upon William Shakespeare.* James McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown’s edition of The Poems of Robert Southwell (1967) offered readers a reliable critical edition of the poet’s works, and the past two decades have seen a small explosion of interest in Southwell, both as a recusant poet and as an early metaphysical poet. Interest in Southwell is greater now than it has ever been, and while provocative readings of his poems will and should continue, a reevaluation of the scope of his influence upon his own and later centuries will remain at the center of “Southwell studies.”

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