Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Smoking Hot Babe for Christmas, Again

Well, it's time for another of my little blog traditions, posting "The Burning Babe" by Robert Southwell, the Elizabethan Jesuit and martyr. 


I've loved this poem for many, many years. What I appreciate most in poetry is depth and power combined with polish and elegance. This poem, I feel, achieves that combination masterfully.

Prolonged metaphors (or conceits) are usually tiresome and laborious, but here the conceit seems natural, lively and in no way incongruous. I love fire imagery in poetry (the Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon is one of my favourite poems), and it works especially well in this seasonal poem. I'm not sure whether the "cosy" aesthetic of Christmas was established in Southwell's time, but in our time, the poem is a pleasant departure from this. (Don't get me wrong. I love Christmas cosiness as much as anybody, and probably more than most. But surely the meaning of Christmas, or of any season that touches upon sacred mysteries, cannot be confined to one aesthetic, and can even be stifled by the monopoly of one aesthetic.)

As I've said in previous years, I think the sixth line ("as though his floods...") is very clumsy. In days before the cult of the author had become exaggerated beyond all measure, anthologists had no hesitation in "improving" the works of authors, even revered and deceased authors. I feel sorely tempted to hack at that awful sixth line. But I'll forebear.

The second last line contains a deft piece of stuffing-- Christmas stuffing, I suppose. "With this he vanished from sight and swiftly sunk away". Were they two separate actions? Surely the one is the same as the other. But the ear is not offended, and so the mind is happy.

The line "so will I melt into a bath to bathe them in my blood" is very satisfying to me. The sudden change from fire imagery to blood imagery is startling, and yet similarly dramatic, even lurid. This is a very elemental poem.

For the last two years or so, as I've mentioned before, I've been memorizing lots of poetry. I have about ninety poems memorized now. "The Burning Babe" was a fairly early addition to that list, so I've been reciting it mentally for a long time now. (I don't remember poems I've put to memory unless I regularly "refresh" them.) Reciting a poem over and over is a real "stress test" of its power as a poem, and this one stands up admirably.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir!

The Burning Babe by Robert Southwell

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 called unto mind that it was Christmas day.


  1. Now I know Christmas is nearly here! Nollaig shona duit!

    Interesting thoughts about the poem, too. 'But the ear is not offended, and so the mind is happy' — a nice turn of phrase!

    1. Go raibh maith agat! And I'm glad you liked that sentence. In all honesty, I was pleased with it myself!

  2. We've obviously needed the cosiness for a long time. A 120 year old bar of chocolate once belonging to Banjo Paterson reportedly emerged this week, one of many sent in Queen Victoria's name to troops fighting the Boers. Paterson was actually there as a journalist and was comparatively unlikely to need the comfort food, so it's worth noting that although he may have kept it as a souvenir of the Sovereign it's value will now be judged by Banjo as a poet. At least this Queen didn't put this poet to death.

    1. Awesome comment! It makes me happy to hear an Australian spontaneously mention Banjo Patterson!

    2. Séamus, I accidentally deleted your comment. This smartphone screen is very fussy and jumpy. But I still have it in my email notification, so I can copy it here:

      "I hadn't heard of Southwell's Christmas carol "Let folly praise what fancy loves, I praise and love that Child..." until I saw it in a new hymnal (published by a group for small distribution) a couple of days ago. Not sure whether it was originally written for music or not?"

      I haven't heard of it, either. I will hunt it out. I haven't really read mich of his other poetry, I think I fear disappointment from the few poems other than the Burning Babe that I did look at.