I do so much rhapsodising about tradition on this blog, how can I fail to observe the blog's own traditions? One of which is posting 'The Burning Babe' by St. Robert Southwell at Christmas. (OK, maybe I've only done it once before, but twice makes it a tradition.)
St. Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest in the reign of Queen Elizabeth who came to England (having been trained on the continent) fully expecting to be martyred-- as indeed he was. He was also a poet, and wrote this classic poem.
I love sentimentality, and I love Christmas sentimentality. But there's something even better than sentimentality, and that's awe. Fire imagery has always appealed to me, and this poem is full of it, as the title indicates.
It's also (in my view) a rare non-tedious example of a conceit. A conceit, as the reader may well know already, is an extended metaphor. Conceits are the reason I find John Donne and the Metaphysical poets nigh-on unreadable. However, it works here, perhaps because the poem is a short one.
The theological density of the poem is also very impressive. I wonder if anyone has ever compiled an anthology of poetry by saints?
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 calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.