Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Roman Steps to the Temple: An Examination of the Influence of Robert Southwell, SJ, upon George Herbert

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Roman Steps to the Temple: An Examination of the Influence of Robert Southwell, SJ, upon George Herbert

Article excerpt

WHILE SCHOLARS HAVE GENERALLY acknowledged the poetic influence of Robert Southwell, SJ, upon George Herbert, no one has yet presented a substantial consideration either of the specific nature of that influence or of its implications. I propose within the following article to at least begin to do so. First, I will explore briefly the complicated nature of Southwell's influence upon those who read and imitated his religious poetry in the wake of his dramatic public execution at Tyburn in 1595. Second, I will suggest several instances of similarity in the poetry of Southwell and Herbert. And finally, I will note some important differences between the poetry of the two men, helping us to understand, perhaps slightly better, the distinctiveness of Herbert's voice and his place in the history of the religious lyric.

Robert Southwell's Execution and Influence

None of the decaying heads on the pikes at London's Great Stone Gate in the late winter of 1595 would have been as conspicuous as that of Robert Southwell's. Here, after all, was the head of a young Englishman who had for several years been regarded as public enemy number one of the realm, and who was, even now as his head rotted upon a pike, enjoying his first significant literary success. Elizabeth and her advisors would have preferred that this charismatic and eloquent young English Jesuit priest die quietly and unceremoniously during his prolonged imprisonment in the tower. They certainly did not need another Campion for recusant Catholics to adore. But Southwell--not only willing but desirous to be another Campion and weary of his nearly two-year imprisonment in the tower--appealed in a letter to his cousin Robert Cecil that he either be executed or brought to trial. The court accommodated by doing both. Though the finding of guilt by a puppet jury was a forgone conclusion, Southwell's trial was not without its drama. Inevitably the physically broken priest, without so much as a book or paper, was confronted by learned doctors of the Church of England, engaged in doctrinal debate, and urged to confess the errors of his ways. Southwell, by all accounts, defended himself brilliantly, though his most memorable line from the trial was his simple declaration to his torturer, Richard Topcliffe: "Thou art a bad man."

If the condemned Jesuit moved some hearts during his trial, it was during his execution that he evoked the very kind of sympathetic attention that Elizabeth would have preferred to avoid. The crowd of course lined London's street to see Southwell's body being drawn to Tyburne, where, in his final public words, he managed to out-Campion Campion. His confession of himself as a Roman Catholic, a priest, a member of the Society of Jesus, and his accompanying declaration of love and loyalty to his Queen moved, not only many in the crowd, but apparently his executioner, who allowed the condemned man's body to hang for an unusually long time upon the rope so that he would not experience consciously the quartering and disemboweling of his own body. This macabre act of kindness prompted one in the crowd to shout: "I see our hangman does not love the Queen!" Then there is the story that on the very night of Southwell's execution a copy of his verses were brought to Queen Elizabeth, who upon reading in his dedicatory poem the priest's impassioned appeal for poets to reform their talents to the service of God, silently shed tears of her own.

Whether or not the sincerity of Southwell's words combined with the gruesomeness of his end actually managed to evoke the sympathy of England's majesty, it is clear that Elizabeth and others must have looked the other way when the first editions of the dead priest's poems were published within a month after his execution. As many have noted, the popular demand for the dead priest's poetry reflects the extraordinary response of the London crowd to Southwell himself. (1) In fact, if we did not know better, we might regard Southwell's execution as a macabre publicity stunt yielding a remarkable and lasting commercial success. …

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