The Burning Babe of Robert Southwell


Robert Southwell (1561-1595)

continuing from a previous posting

AG: If you go back now to The Burning Babe of Robert Southwell

[Allen reads the entire poem]

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.

What was interesting, if any of you know (William) Blake, is that the imagery is “the metal in this furnace”, and I think, somebody to work them on, “to work them to their good”,  “to wash them in my blood”  “So will I melt them into a bath to wash them in my blood”..Somebody knew what that was in terms of what was it..? does anybody remember?

Student: Tempering metal

AG: Tempering metal.  In Blake’s system, Los, (is)  the figure in the poet, of the Imagination, and his symbols are the anvil, the chain, the furnace, the hammer (like in “Tyger, Tyger – “What the hammer? What the chain and what furnace was thy brain?”) . So, Blake, I guess, must have picked up on this too. So it must be… Even if he didn’t, it’s interesting… He probably knew this because this is well-enough known, a couple of hundred years before him.  So there’s a burning baby of immortal…of immortal feeling. We started with that in the last class and then we went up in the air (and we got to talk about wind and breath on the basis of a poem, a Sonnet by Samuel Daniel on page 189, Sonnet 46

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twelve-and-a-quarter minutes in  (Allen’s reading of Southwell concludes approximately thirteen-and-a-half minutes in) and concluding approximately fourteen-and-a-half minutes in]

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