Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Such Fire Is Love": The Bernardine Poetry of St. Robert Southwell, S.J

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Such Fire Is Love": The Bernardine Poetry of St. Robert Southwell, S.J

Article excerpt

Abstract: Though nearly forgotten for three centuries, the poetry of the Elizabethan Jesuit martyr, St. Robert Southwell, was immensely popular and influential among his contemporary cross-confessional readers. No less surprising, so too were the works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, which the missionary-poet requested "for his solace" in the Tower. While most studies of Southwell mention this biographical fact, none examine its literary ramifications in any depth. In response, this essay explores Southwell's and Bernard's similar relations to their respective literary cultures, particularly in their religious conversion of the language of secular love. While better illuminating this central theme of both authors, this essay points to the Jesuit's contemplative medieval heritage as well as the Cistercian's early modern apostolate.

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Jesus. Deus meus et omnia. Deus tibi se, tu te Deo. After the martyrdom of his fellow Jesuit, Robert Southwell, in February 1595, Henry Garnet was given the breviary that had accompanied his friend for two and a half years in the London Tower. Southwell had no other books in prison except for a Bible and the works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, which his friends had sent him at his request. These books, notes the contemporary historian Diego de Yepes, "he himself wanted for his solace" (qtd. in Janelle 68). Southwell had no pen or paper, but, after the return of the breviary, Garnet discovered three aspirations repeatedly scratched on its pages: Jesus. Deus meus et omnia. Deus tibi se, tu te Deo (Janelle 68). The literary life of the talented young priest, whose writings would posthumously become bestsellers in early modern England, concluded and was encapsulated in these brief words. At the age of thirty-three or thirty-four, after almost nine years as a clandestine missionary, he hung on the gallows of wintry Tyburn and died.

Southwell's attraction to Bernard of Clairvaux is evocative and illuminating--a window into his mind and heart during those silent years in Tyburn as well the preceding years of apostolic and literary activity. It is illuminating in large part because it is unexpected, given Southwell's Jesuit vocation and the highly mobile, vocal missionary action it entailed. The Spiritual Exercises of his Jesuit founder, Ignatius of Loyola, or the masterpiece of another early modern apostle would have been a natural choice "for his solace" in the Tower, but it was the writings of a medieval mystic that encouraged him instead. It was not to a missionary but to a monk that he turned, not to a "red martyr" of scaffold or sword but to a "white martyr," one who died in the seclusion of his cloister, having long offered himself, in the words of St. Paul, as a "living sacrifice ... [of] spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1). Although most studies of the Jesuit poet mention the biographical fact of his reading in the Tower, none examine in any comprehensive way the theological and artistic resonances of the monk's writings within the missionary's literary corpus--his half-dozen prose treatises and meditations and about sixty poems, most of which were widely published and acclaimed during the decades after his martyrdom. In response, this essay explores the intersecting literary apostolates of Bernard and Southwell, in light of shared imagery, themes, and pastoral and devotional approaches. In particular, I will focus on their similar call to contemptus mundi through a holocaust of earthly passions and even, if necessary, life itself, along with their accompanying proposals--expressed in the converted language of human love--to embrace, and be embraced by, the One who is life and love. The fruit of this comparison is a fresh perspective on Southwell's poetic theory and practice, especially in highlighting the unity between Southwell's literature and his life, and his life and his death. Moreover, the Bernardine source points beyond itself, revealing the first source and final end of the Jesuit's work: radical adherence to the heart of the Christian faith. …

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