(1595) The most famous poem by the English Roman Catholic writer Robert Southwell is a Christmas vision. The poet stands shivering outdoors on a snowy winter's night when, suddenly, his chest feels warm (ll. 1-4). He looks up in fear to see if he is near a fire and sees the vision of a baby burning. The baby is weeping, he sees, but the tears only kindle the fire. The babe explains that he is sad because people have not come to warm themselves in the flame (ll. 5-8). Then, in a series of metaphors, he says his breast is a furnace where sinful souls are heated like metals (ll. 9-12). This operation is for their good, he adds, for, once melted, the souls will be bathed in his blood. Having said this, he vanishes, but the words are sufficiently pointed to remind the poet that it is Christmas Day (ll. 13-16).
"The Burning Babe" is written in fourteeners—14-syllable lines of iambic verse. In all, there are eight rhymed couplets, the first seven of which form a single period, or sentence, with semicolons after lines 6 and 12. The final couplet forms a second sentence, in which the vision vanishes and the poet identifies it as a reminder of Christmas.
The poem is most difficult where it becomes most interesting, with the series of metaphors equating the Christ child with fires of purgatory—the Roman Catholic place of preparation where souls are purged of their sins and prepared for entrance into Heaven. It is disturbingly far away from the sentimental verse of Christmas cards precisely because it reminds us that Jesus and Christ are the same at all times. Indeed, the fire is fueled by "wounding thornes" (l. 9), a reminder that the Crucifixion is already present at the moment of incarnation.
Southwell's furnace recalls the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, where a mysterious figure appears and saves the faithful, a figure that Christians took to be Christ. There may also be an echo of Isaiah 48:10: "Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction." Another apocalyptic echo is of Revelation 7:14: "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
Southwell shows a general familiarity with the apparatus of chemistry, including the furnace, the fuel, and the chemical wash, or "bath." Similar language was used for the alchemical process; indeed, the mercurial wash used on the raw matter, after it had been "mortified," was often called blood. The parallels are acciden tal, however. Like other Jesuit authors, Southwell never suggested that Christ was present in a furnace, only that he could be symbolized by one.
Southwell was a Catholic missionary to Protestant England at a time when such activity was considered treasonable and punishable by a terrible public execution. His poetry has appealed especially to English Catholics who see hints of Southwell's own martyrdom in 1595 in the babe's suffering.
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