Thursday, December 15, 2022

There's a Baby on Fire!

Well, I'm all about tradition, and once again it's time for this blog's Christmas tradition: "The Burning Babe" by St. Robert Southwell SJ, the Elizabethan martyr.

Here it is:

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, 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 vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

I've said a lot about this poem in previous years. Check out here and here for some commentary on it.

Reading it just now, the line "So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood" appeals to me particularly. It's so vivid, so visual, almost lurid. The juxtaposition of fire and blood is particularly powerful. It's a suitably potent image of what Christmas is all about, the drama of the Incarnation and indeed the Crucixion.

I'm increasingly preoccupied with poetry, and my view of its importance grows and grows. Conservatives find fault with so many aspects of modern society, but they rarely comment on its indifference to poetry. Indeed, conservatives are complicit in this. Shamefully so, since they should know better. I'm somewhat worn out making this argument to my fellow conservatives (mostly on social media). They agree with me, but don't show any inclination to take poetry as seriously as they take music, cinema, fiction, liturgy, architecture, and all the other activities they actually value. They'll applaud my general points about poetry, but whenever I try to get a discussion going about a particular poem or poet....the big silence falls.

If I sound bitter, it's because I am. And this isn't just the bitterness of a frustrated poet. Yes, I do write poetry myself, and yes, I am frustrated at my inability to get it published and read. But my frustration goes far beyond the personal.

I now have this quotation from Arthur Griffith, one of the founders of the Irish state, as my "pinned post" on Facebook: " In every properly governed and sensible community the people would spend half their time in making, reading and comprehending poetry". How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Irish nation...

But enough of that. I'm writing this beside a Christmas tree, enjoying its lights, and also enjoying the Christmas chocolates that are floating around. Whenever I deplore or lament this or that aspect of modern society, I feel I should contrast it with the ever-increasing Chestertonian wonder I feel in life itself. Just to sit in a room, to breathe the air, to see light and colour, to explore memory and imagination, is a blessed state. Even more so if you are sitting beside a Christmas tree and eating chocolate.


  1. Dear Maolsheachlann,

    Thank you for this. As you know, I share your preoccupations about poetry, not least because in many ways it is the heart of the whole matter. But I, too, try to keep my eyes open to the joys of life, especially of this time of year as Christmas approaches.


    1. Thanks so much, Dominic! It's more easy to keep one's eyes on the joys of life at Christmas, since it's a very poetic time of year. Although "The Night Before Christmas" never became a thing on this side of the Atlantic, aside from the first two lines!