Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by John W. Hales
Robert Southwell (c. 15611595)
[Born at Horsham St. Faiths, Norfolk, about 1562; entered the Society of Jesus, 1578, at Rome; accompanied Father Garnet to England, was captured; and was executed at Tyburn, 15945. St. Peters Complaint, with other Poems, was first published in 1595; Maeoniae in the same year; Marie Magdalens Funerall Teares, 1609.]
SOUTHWELLS poems enjoyed a vast popularity in the last decade of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century. St. Peters Complaint, first printed in 1595, was again and again re-issued in that and the immediately following years. Both Hall and Marston refer to it in their Satires. Never, says Bolton in his Hypercritica, must be forgotten St. Peters Complaint and those other serious poems said to be father Southwells; the English whereof, as it is most proper, so the sharpness and light of wit is very rare in them.
No doubt this popularity was greatly due to the deep interest and pity excited by his misfortunes, encountered and borne with so rare a constancy. No Protestant could be so desperately bigoted as not to be touched by the sad yet noble story of what this young English gentleman dared and endured. Whatever may be thought of his cause, one can only admire the fearless devotion with which he gave himself up to it, reckless of danger, of torture, of death. Let antiquity, says one whose office it then was to suppress so far as might be the efforts often at least miserably misguided, of the confederacy to which Southwell belonged, boast of its Roman heroes and the patience of captives in torments; our own age is not inferior to it, nor do the minds of the English cede to the Romans. There is at present confined one Southwell, a Jesuit, who, thirteen times most cruelly tortured, cannot be induced to confess anything, not even the colour of the horse whereon on a certain day he rode, lest from such indication his adversaries might conjecture in what house, or in company of what Catholics, he that day was. He was only about twenty-four years of agethe exact year of his birth is not ascertainedwhen along with Garnet (afterwards associated with the Gunpowder Plot, as was believed, and on evidence never yet successfully rebutted), he returned to England on his perilous mission. Some six years afterwards he fell into his enemies hands. For three years he was closely confined in the Tower; and then came the ignominious end at Tyburn. Such a story could not but move men,the story of a spirit so strong in its faith, zealous, inflexible.
Nor would those who were drawn to his writings by sympathy with his martyrdom fail to see in them the reflection of his lofty and devoted nature. Nearly all his poetry must have been written in the valley of the shadow of death, some of it in deaths very presence. And throughout it we perceive the thoughts and beliefs that ever inspired and upheld him. Especially dear and welcome and present is the idea that Life is but loss. Death is cruel, not for coming, but for delaying to come. This has often been said, but never with an intenser sincerity and conviction. This death, he said just before the horses were started and the car removed from his feet and he was hanged, although it may now seem base and ignominious, can to no rightly-thinking person appear doubtful but that it is beyond measure an eternal weight of glory to be wrought in us, who look not to the things which are visible, but to those which are unseen. We may be sure these words were with him no vulgar commonplace.
And apart from their attraction as revealing the secret of his much-enduring spirit, his poems show a true poetic power. They show a rich and fertile fancy, with an abundant store of effective expression at its service. He inclines to sententiousness; but his sentences are no mere prose edicts, as is so often the case with writers of that sort; they are bright and coloured with the light and the hues of a vivid imagination. In imagery, indeed, he is singularly opulent. In this respect St. Peters Complaint reminds one curiously of the almost exactly contemporary poem, Shakespeares Lucrece. There is a like inexhaustibleness of illustrative resource. He delights to heap up metaphor on metaphor. Thus he describes Sleep as
St. Peters Complaint reminds one of Lucrece also in the minuteness of its narration, and in the unfailing abundance of thought and fancy with which every detail is treated. It is undoubtedly the work of a mind of no ordinary copiousness and force, often embarrassed by its own riches, and so expending them with a prodigal carelessness. Thus Southwells defects spring not from poverty, but from imperfectly managed wealth; or, to use a different image, the flowers are overcrowded in his garden, and the blaze of colour is excessive. Still, flowers they are. Like many another Elizabethan, he was wanting in art; his genius ran riot.