Robert Southwell and the Poetry of Profane

Robert Southwell and the Poetry of Profane Love

World Literature

Robert Southwell and the Poetry of ProfaneSouthwell’s main campaign was to work as Mission priest and as a poet his objective was to convert the poetry of profane love into poetry of divine love.

By Siraj Ahmed Bodlo

As the poetry and the prose of Robert Southwell are undeservedly almost forgotten, the literary importance of his works, therefore, justifies a laborious and lengthy work.

A cursory glance at his poetry and prose reveals a religious ideal which they embody. His works essentially carry the religious spirit of the era. As Bunyan is hard to understand apart from the Puritan Protestantism, so is Southwell impossible to understand apart from the Counter Reformation Catholicism.

Southwell’s main campaign was to work as Mission priest and as a poet his objective was to convert the poetry of profane love into poetry of divine love. The Jesuit spiritual methods and aim molded not only personality of Southwell, but also have invincible stamp on his works. In this regard ’’Mary Magdalen’s Funerals Tears’’ [1591] and ‘’Saint Peter’s Complain’’ [1595] are remarkable. In these works Southwell castigates love poetry and gives examples of the devices that can be adapted to change profane love poetry to the services of religion.

Since Southwell was considerably influenced by the counter-reformation especially form the Jesuit religious order, it is important, therefore, to give the religion background of the age. In the middle of 16th century, under the stimulus of the counterreformation and Jesuit order, new treatises of meditation began to appear. The famous treatise that had remarkable impact on the life and literature of the European continent, were Book of Prayer and Meditation [1554] by the Spanish Fray Louis de Granada; Spiritual Combat [1589] by the Italian Lorenzo Scupoli; Introduction to Devout Life [1609] by the French St. Francoes de Sales and the last but not the least, Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola.

These entire treatises were translated throughout the European continent to promote the Jesuit scheme of religious order. Such an order places soul under stern discipline and the soul’s progress is prescribed with the strictness of service relations. Perfection, according to the Jesuit order, must be reached by a patient, every day struggle, with an exhortation that one should sin less today than yesterday.

Every morning ‘’though shalt take a good purpose for that day following, and at night thou shalt discusses diligently, how thou hast behaved thee the day before, in deed, and in thouth ‘’Love of Christ is not a sudden rapture of the soul, but it can be gained through strenuous efforts, slowly through meditative exercises and prayer. Most of the exercises are performed in three different ways – By imagining oneself present in the very spot of the event; by imagining the event as occurring before one’s eyes and by imagining that everything which is being meditated passes within one’s own heart generally. The emphasis of the meditation is on sins, misery of life and death, Day of Judgment, hell, heaven and God as benefactor. The method of meditation, described by Southewll, also focuses on certain similitude in practicing such meditation. A passage from the exercises written by Southwell in Latin records meditation as:

Consider first how thou wert the captive Ans slave of the Devi, bound hand and foot by the chain of send and at the very gates of hell. They king hearing of this, laid aside his royal majesty, His power, His attendants, and His state, clothed himself in coarse and torn garments and came into this vale of tears. For thirty –three years he sought thee wandering about hidden and unknown and suffering many injuries and misfortunes. As he was praying for thee, with many tears and sweat of blood, thy sins rushed upon Him, tortured and scoured Him, and put him to a shameful death, whilst thou didst go free.

Next regard thyself as a son who has left his father and wandering far has at length fallen in with the army of His enemies. They have made the a miserable captive …….Thy Father, hearing of thy fate….moved with pity for thee, has left His household, put on the garb of a slave and willingly become an exile and a wanderer in search of thee. At length he too has fallen in with the army of the enemies, and after most painful tortures has been put to death. But by his death thou hast been freed.

Or again think of him as the good shepherd who has left his sheep upon the mountains and sought hee far and wide in the desert. He has been torn by thorns …. but at length he has found thee amongst the wolves.

He has freed thee, but the wolves have attached Him and he has been slain.

Louis L. Martz feeling the impact of the continental art of meditation remarks “…the counters

Reformation penetrated to English literature through the methods of religious meditations that lay at heart of the century’s spiritual life and proved a radiant center for religious literature of every kind’’3 poetry of meditation, written under the influence of the meditative exercise, aim at finding order within the self. There is an act of interior dramatization for the accuse himself and talks to an invisible power within the self. The speaker approaches love of God through the “memory.  Hence essentially the meditative poetry consists of an inferior dram in which a man projects a self upon an inner stage and thereupon comes to know self in the light of divine Presence. The meditative poem, generally, begin with a brief statement or with a question.

Southwell’s poetry is replete with such characteristics .He opens one of his poems with an abrupt questioning considering his soul as exiled and imprisoned:

Faire soul, how shall veyles the graces shroud?

How long shall this exile with-hold thy right?

When will thy sunne disperse this morall cloud?

And give gloryes scope to blaze their light?

O That a starre more fit for Angel’s eyes.

The modern critics do not place Southwell in the front ranks of English writers. If the literary efforts of Southwell had not been cut by the hang man’s hand, he would have established a sure footing in the front ranks of 16th century English literary figures. Yet it is true that every reader notices the musical charm and graceful trendiness of some of his devotional lyrics while literary value of his lyrics can hardly be denied. Southwell belongs to the devotional school which had its followers throughout the continent. ‘That this school should be overlooked in current histories of English may give rise to some wonder for at any good bibliographical catalogue will reveal its existence …’’ remarks Janelle Piere.

To conclude, the meditative poetry of Robert Southwell and his lyrics are most distinctive and admirable. There is in his verse reflected “lovingness towards Christ, Mary and all holy Persons. God is so real to him, he is so human and present that he may be considered as personal friend and addressed with a mixture of gentle reverence and tender intimacy …. Both his life and works are an explicit guideline for the Christian world to lead a life of uprightness.


Faculty Member, Department of English Shaheed Benazir Bhutto University, Shaheed Benazirabad and M. Phil Scholar at Minhaj University Lahore. He can be accessed at [email protected]

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