Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Repeat

It's become a Christmas tradition for me to blog about "The Burning Babe" by St. Robert Southwell S.J.

I'm going to reproduce my post from last year, and then add some extra thoughts.

So last year I said this:

I do so much rhapsodising about tradition on this blog, how can I fail to observe the blog's own traditions? One of which is posting 'The Burning Babe' by St. Robert Southwell at Christmas. (OK, maybe I've only done it once before, but twice makes it a tradition.)



St. Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest in the reign of Queen Elizabeth who came to England (having been trained on the continent) fully expecting to be martyred-- as indeed he was. He was also a poet, and wrote this classic poem.

I love sentimentality, and I love Christmas sentimentality. But there's something even better than sentimentality, and that's awe. Fire imagery has always appealed to me, and this poem is full of it, as the title indicates.

It's also (in my view) a rare non-tedious example of a conceit. A conceit, as the reader may well know already, is an extended metaphor. Conceits are the reason I find John Donne and the Metaphysical poets nigh-on unreadable. However, the conceit works here, perhaps because the poem is a short one.

The theological density of the poem is also very impressive. I wonder if anyone has ever compiled an anthology of poetry by saints?

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 call├ęd unto mind that it was Christmas day.


Well, welcome back to 2017. I'll just add a few comments about fire imagery. I really do love it! Right now, I'm listening to "Burning Love" by Elvis Presley, whose lyrics are full of such imagery.

The stories that move me most in the Bible often involve images of fire or intense light; the burning bush, Pentecost, or the Transfiguration.

I've often written about the poem "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon on this blog. My favourite line of that poem, and quite possibly my favourite line of poetry of all time, is the line: "The fingers of fire are making corruption clean." That line sets my imagination alight!

Another reason I love this poem is because nothing jars in it. This may be a "negative" reason to love a poem, but it's good enough for me. None of the similes are incongruous or ridiculous, and the metre is smooth throughout. I like "smooth" poetry-- Tennyson, Yeats, Swinburne, Larkin and Christina Rossetti are outstanding proponents of smooth, polished verses. It's rare to find such smoothness in an Elizabethan-- whether that's due to changes in pronunciation over the centuries, or whether it was as true than as it is now, I don't know.

Edit, later in the day: I've been memorizing this poem, or rather re-memorizing, in order to recite it. Memorizing a poem may be the best way to savour it! I'm struck even more by how well-constructed it is.

It has one line that, in my view, is very awkwardly phrased:

As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

This doesn't trip off the tongue-- rather, it trips the tongue up, so to speak. And that's a fault in poetry, in my view.

But the rest of the poem does trip off the tongue. The lines all fit neatly in the verse structure-- enjambment is sometimes a worthwhile technique, but I think it should be used rarely. There's something very satisfying in parallelism such as this:

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,

"The Burning Babe" wouldn't be in the front rank of my favourite poems-- it couldn't rival "Ulysses" or "Locksley Hall" by Tennyson, or "To Helen" by Edgar Allen Poe, or "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon. But it's pretty good!

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