You might think poets make natural martyrs. Passionate, idealistic, enraptured by visions of artistic immortality; throughout history, barricades and prisons have been crammed full of poetic talent.
But the best poets are, by necessity, listeners and observers, detached from the action where martyrs are found. When they strive for heroic death, more often than not it ends in ignominy – think of Lord Byron, borne aloft in stately procession as he set out to liberate Greece, before promptly dying of fever.
An exception is the Jesuit priest Robert Southwell, remembered today as much for his heroic and violent death in the name of Catholicism as for the moving poetry he left. Southwell was no flamboyant hero-poet. His was a quietly courageous faith embracing almost certain death – and he sought to instil this courage into others:
Free would my soul from mortal body fly,
And tread the tracks of death’s desired ways;
Life is but loss where death is deemed gain,
And loathed pleasures breed displeasing pain.
The details of his – brief – life are simple enough. He was born in 1561 in Norfolk and sent abroad to study at the English College in Douai. While still a teenager, he was admitted to the Society of Jesus.
In 1586, after some years in Rome, he returned as a missionary to England where he spent the next six years, often in hiding, carrying out the dangerous work of preaching and administering the sacraments. The punishments for such a practice was to be hanged, disembowelled and cut into quarters.
Eventually he was arrested, tortured and confined to the Tower of London for three years, awaiting death. Neither faith nor poetic muse deserted him during his imprisonment, though he was forced to scratch words with a pin in his breviary, lacking access to writing materials. His execution took place at Tyburn in 1595; he was 33.
In the centuries since, the condemned traitor has become the saint, canonised by Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs executed for their faith in Reformation England. Southwell is now more a religious than literary figure. This overlooks the fact that these two vocations hold almost equal claim upon his life and work, and developed simultaneously.
At first he writes with the immaturity of a man smitten with idealised fantasy. Aged only 17, having walked to Rome in the hopes of becoming a Jesuit, he was rejected on account of his youth. “How can I but wast in anguish and agony that find myself … disunited from that body wherein lyeth all my life my love my whole hart and affection?” So far, so typical: another intense, impassioned young poet.
But along the way Southwell – and his poetry – matured. As a Jesuit, he wrote of the need for poets to put aside “follies and fayninges of love” and instead “see how well verse and vertue sute together”. While he was a missionary, his life constantly in danger, he never stopped writing. A priest without a pulpit, Southwell preached through his poetry.
What he understood so clearly was that his poetry could give back a sense of shared beauty and belonging to people who had been denied it. Catholics in Elizabethan England were marginalised, often with only fear to sustain them: fellow Jesuit, Edmund Campion, wrote to his superiors in Rome from his hiding place in England, “The house where I am is sad; no other talk but of death, flight, prison, or spoil of their friends.” Again and again, Southwell’s poetry strengthens the resolve of those in despair, encouraging them to look past their present turmoil to what really matters:
I seek and find a light that ever shines
Whose glorious beams display such heavenly sights
As yield my soul the sum of all delights.
He closes another poem with the same contrast, between the temporary hardship of this life and the all-too-often overlooked comfort of the next:
We trample grass, and prize the flowers of May,
Yet grass is green when flowers do fade away.
Until recently, we spent 18 months hidden indoors, cut off from one another, engulfed by the fear of death and illness: Southwell’s poetry has become almost uncomfortably relevant again. It applies as much to pandemics as it does to persecution, and is long-overdue a rediscovery. Although the example of his life is a hard one to follow, his words still have the capacity to bring comfort to those who suffer:
Not where I breath, but where I love, I live;
Not where I love, but where I am, I die.
Archie Hill is a freelance writer.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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