Blessed Robert Southwell, Priest, Poet and Martyr

On this day, February 21, 1595, the Jesuit priest, poet, hymnodist and martyr, Robert Southwell (1561 – 1595) one of the great jewels of England, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. (The reader may find a fine biography, along with a number of his poems, here). He managed to evade the pursuing authorities in Elizabethan England for six years, until his capture, which led to his being tortured by the nefarious Richard Topcliffe. Father Southwell, like Christ His Lord, spoke not a word, – never revealing the names or locations – and, finally, tried in their kangaroo courts and executed on a wintry day at Tyburn.

Southwell’s sublime poetry influenced many others, Donne, Herbert and Hopkins.  Joseph Pearce makes the case that Father Southwell influenced especially Shakespeare, whose own prose and poetry is not only filled with subtle Catholic imagery, but texts inspired by Southwell’s own, who may even have been the Bard’s confessor and spiritual director.

Perhaps his poem on conscience is a good introduction, quite a propos for our day and age:

My conscience is my crown;
Contented thoughts my rest;
My heart is happy in itself;
My bliss is in my breast.

 Enough, I reckon wealth;
A mean, the surest lot;
That lies too high for base contempt,
Too low for envy’s shot.

 My wishes are but few,
All easy to fulfil:
I make the limits of my power
The bounds unto my will.

I have no hopes but one,
Which is of heavenly reign:
Effects attain’d, or not desired,
All lower hopes refrain.

I feel no care of coin;
Well-doing is my wealth;
My mind to me an empire is,
While Grace affordeth health.

I wrestle not with rage,
While fury’s flame doth burn;
It is in vain to stop the stream,
Until the tide doth turn.

But when the flame is out,
And ebbing wrath doth end,
I turn a late enraged foe
Into a quiet friend;

And taught with often proof,
A temper’d calm I find
To be most solace to itself,
Best cure for angry mind.

No change of Fortune’s calms
Can cast my comforts down:
When Fortune smiles, I smile to think
How quickly she will frown;

And when, in froward mood,
She moved an angry foe,
Small gain I found to let her come,
Less loss to let her go.