Thursday, 19 March 2015

POET OF THE MONTH #26: Robert Southwell



Shun delays, they breed remorse;
Take thy time while time doth serve thee;
Creeping snails have weakest force,
Fly their fault lest thou repent thee.
Good is best when soonest wrought,
Lingered labours come to nought.

Hold up sail while gale doth last,
Tide and wind stay no man's pleasure;
Seek not time when time is past,
Sober speed is wisdom's leisure.
After-wits are dearly bought,
Let thy fore-wit guide thy thought.

Time wears all his locks before,
Take thy hold upon his forehead;
When he flies he turns no more,
And behind his scalp is naked.
Works adjourned have many stays,
Long demurs breed new delays.

Seek they salve while sore is green,
Festered wounds ask deeper lancing;
After-cures are seldom seen,
Often sought, scarce ever chancing.
Time and place give best advice,
Out of season, out of price.

Crush the serpent in the head,
Break ill eggs ere they be hatched;
Kill bad chickens in the tread,
Fligg they hardly can be catched.
In the rising stifle ill,
Lest it grow against thy will.

Drops do pierce the stubborn flint,
Not by force but often falling;
Custom kills by feeble dint,
More by use than strength prevailing.
Single sands have little weight,
Many make a drowning freight.

Tender twigs are bent with ease,
Aged trees do break with bending;
Young desires make little prease,
Growth dost make them past amending.
Happy man, that soon doth knock
Babble babes against the rock!

[written 1586-1592, published 1595]

line 27: tread = the act of conception 
line 28: fligg = fledged, ready to fly
line 39: prease = trouble, difficulty
line 42: Babble = Babylonian

The Poet:  Robert Southwell (pronounced 'Suthel' to rhyme with 'shovel') was a Jesuit priest who was executed on the orders of Elizabeth I on 21 February 1595 for the unpardonable crime of treason.  After spending three years in the Tower of London, Southwell was eventually taken to the 'hanging field' at Tyburn where he was hung, drawn (cut down and disembowelled) and quartered (had his head severed from his body and the rest of his corpse sliced into four separate pieces) in what was then the most common form of execution for traitors to England and its paranoid Protestant Queen.  It's doubtful that Southwell's gruesome death came as any surprise to him, given he had volunteered to lead a third Papal mission to his native land in 1584 along with his fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet –– a priest who would also find himself hung, drawn and quartered in May 1606 after being implicated in the 1605 'Gunpowder Plot' to assassinate James I led by the nobleman and Catholic zealot Robert Catesby.

Southwell was born in Norfolk, probably in 1561 or perhaps a little later, into a noble Catholic family which had, ironically, prospered as a result of Henry VIII's 1536 decision to disband the monasteries and divide their wealth between himself, his army and those who had supported his decision to appoint himself Supreme Head of the newly-founded Church of England.  In 1575 Southwell travelled to the northern French city of Douai, ostensibly to attend the 'English School' which had been established at its university.  Instead, he attended (possibly in secret) the Jesuit College of Anchin, based at the same institution, where he pursued his studies until unrest among French and Spanish Catholics saw him transferred, for his own safety, to the College of Clermont in Paris.  

In Paris he was taught by the English-born Jesuit Thomas Darbyshire, under whose influence he had decided to take holy orders by the time he returned to Douai in June 1577.  In 1578 he set off on foot for Rome, where he hoped to be accepted into the Society of Jesus, only to be told that he would have to complete a two year novitiate in the Belgian city of Tournai before his request to join the order could be seriously considered.  Southwell appealed against this decision, writing a heartfelt letter to the head of the order which saw him admitted to the Jesuit training college at Sant' Andrea, where he studied for several years before becoming a fully ordained Catholic priest in 1584.

Southwell could have remained in Rome, serving as Prefect of Studies at that city's Venerable English College for the rest of his life, but instead asked to be sent to England to provide spiritual guidance and comfort to his increasingly marginalized Catholic countrymen.  He and Garnet arrived in England in July 1584 – an event immediately reported to Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the Queen's secret service and the man responsible for monitoring the whereabouts of renegade Catholics and their illegally hidden priests.  For the next six years Southwell led a peripatetic and quite often dangerous life in and around London, moving from one 'safe' Catholic house to another and further tempting fate by occasionally appearing in public in the guise of a Protestant gentleman named 'Cotton.'

The 1586 plot, devised by Sir Anthony Babington to assassinate Elizabeth I and place her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne, proved to be Southwell's undoing.  In 1590, while visiting the Harrow home of his friend Richard Bellamy –– a man whose brother had been one of the Babington conspirators – Southwell was arrested as the result of information supplied to the authorities by Bellamy's niece who had to be tortured in order to make her cooperate with them.  He was first taken to the home of Richard Topcliffe, the Queen's chief priest hunter and torturer, where he was brutally worked over for forty hours without once breaking his silence.  After that he was dragged next door to London's Gatehouse Prison, where a new team of torturers appointed by the Privy Council took their turn to work him over.  Still refusing to cooperate with his captors, Southwell was moved again a month later to solitary confinement in the Tower of London, where he would remain for the next three years under Topcliffe's personal supervision.

It was during his time in the Tower that Southwell is believed to have written most of his poetry and his impressive collection of religious works, several of which were smuggled out and commercially printed during his lifetime and proved popular with Catholic and Protestant readers alike.  In early 1595 he was formally charged with treason by the Privy Council and moved again, this time to Newgate Prison and a completely dark subterranean cell known, for obvious reasons, as 'Limbo.'  His trial, which began soon afterwards, was a foregone conclusion, with a unanimous verdict of guilty being pronounced on him by the jurors selected to hear his case.  He was then returned to Newgate where he remained until the day of his execution, which began with him being dragged through the London streets on a sled before his death sentence was at last carried out.  

Before he ascended the gallows, Southwell was granted the opportunity to address the crowd which had gathered to watch him die, reading a passage from the Bible and confessing that he was a priest who planned to ask God to show mercy to his Queen and her religiously divided country.  Unusually for the time, nobody shouted the word 'Traitor!' when his severed head was held aloft by the executioner for all the crowd to see.  Within a few weeks, an 'anonymous' edition of his poems was published, quickly followed by a second and third edition containing further religious poems that would go on to influence the work of many secular poets including Ben Jonson, Thomas Nashe, Michael Drayton, Thomas Lodge and William Shakespeare –– an ironic turn of events, given Southwell's oft-stated belief that poets expended too much artistic effort on glorifying carnal love and not nearly enough of it on praising and glorifying God.  The third edition of his poetry was followed by the printing, usually in secret, of many of his most enduring religious works, with Marie Magdalene's Funeral Teares, first published in 1591, running to ten editions prior to 1636.

In October 1970 Southwell was canonized, along with Henry Garnet and thirty-eight other Catholic 'Martyrs of England and Wales,' by Pope Paul VI. 

Click HERE to read other poems by ROBERT SOUTHWELL at The Poetry Foundation website.  To read a short post about his poetic and perhaps familial relationship with fellow poet (and secret Catholic?) WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, please click HERE.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #1: Sir Walter Ralegh
POET OF THE MONTH #5: François Villon
POET OF THE MONTH #24: Nazim Hikmet

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