Robert Southwell, S.J.

ROBERT SOUTHWELL, English Jesuit and poet, son of Richard Southwell of Horsham St Faith's, Norfolk, was born in 1560/61. The Southwells were affiliated with many noble English families, and Robert's grandmother, Elizabeth Shelley, figures in the genealogy of Shelley the poet. He was sent very young to the Roman Catholic college at Douai, and thence to Paris, where he was placed under a Jesuit father, Thomas Darbyshire. In 1580 he joined the Society of Jesus, after a two years' novitiate, passed mostly at Tournay.

In spite of his youth he was made prefect of studies in the English college of the Jesuits at Rome, and was ordained priest in 1584. It was in that year that an act was passed, forbidding any English-born subject of the Queen who had entered into priest's orders in the Roman Catholic Church since her accession to remain in England longer than forty days on pain of death. But Southwell at his own request was sent to England in 1586 as a Jesuit missionary with Henry Garnett. He went from one Catholic family to another, administering the rites of his Church, and in 1589 became domestic chaplain to Ann Howard, whose husband, the first Earl of Arundel, was in prison convicted of treason. It was to him that Southwell addressed his Epistle of Comfort. This and other of his religious tracts, A Short Rule of Good Life, Triumphs over Death, Mary Magdalen's Tears and a Humble Supplication to Queen Elizabeth, were widely circulated in manuscript. That they found favour outside Catholic circles is proved by Thomas Nash's imitation of Mary Magdalen's Tears in Christ's Tears over Jerusalem.

After six years of successful labour Southwell was arrested. He was in the habit of visiting the house of Richard Bellamy, who lived near Harrow and was under suspicion on account of his connexion with Jerome Bellamy, who had been executed for sharing in Anthony Babington's plot. One of the daughters, Anne Bellamy, was arrested and imprisoned in the gatehouse of Holborn. She revealed Southwell's movements to Richard Topcliffe, who immediately arrested him. He was imprisoned at first in Topcliffe's house, where he was repeatedly put to the torture in the vain hope of extracting evidence about other priests.

Transferred to the gatehouse at Westminster, he was so abominably treated that his father petitioned Elizabeth that he might either be brought to tria1 and put to death, if found guilty, or removed in any case from "that filthy hole." Southwell was then lodged in the Tower, but he was not brought to tria1 until February 1595. There is little doubt that much of his poetry, none of which was published during his lifetime, was written in prison. On the 20th of February 1595 he was tried before the King's Bench on the charge of treason, and was hanged at Tyburn on the following day. On the scaffold he denied any evil intentions towards the Queen or her government.

St Peter's Complaint with other Poems was published in April 1595 without the author's name, and was reprinted thirteen times during the next forty years. A supplementary volume entitled Maeoniae appeared later in 1595, and A Foure fould Meditation of the foure last things in 1606. This, which is not included in Dr A. B. Grosart's reprint (1872) in the Fuller Worthies Library, was published by Mr Charles Edmonds in his Isham Reprints (1895). A Hundred Meditations of the Love of God, in prose, was first printed from a MS. at Stonyhurst College in 1873. Southwell's poetry is euphuistic in manner. But his frequent use of antithesis and paradox, the varied and fanciful imagery by which he realizes religious emotion, though they are indeed in accordance with the poetical conventions of his time, are also the unconstrained expression of an ardent and concentrated imagination. Ben Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that he would willingly have destroyed many of his own poems to be able to claim as his own Southwell's "Burning Babe," an extreme but beautiful example of his fantastic treatment of sacred subjects. His poetry is not, however, all characterized by this elaboration. Immediately preceding this very piece in his collected works is a carol written in terms of the utmost simplicity.

Excerpted from:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XXV.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 518.

Southwell | Quotes | Works | Links | Essays | Books | Religious Writers | Renaissance Lit

Back to Robert Southwell

Site copyright ©1996-2012 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
This page created by Anniina Jokinen on September 16, 2006. Last updated on February 21, 2012.