This little Babe


Robert Southwell was born to a Roman Catholic family in Norfolk about 1561. In 1576 he was sent to study at the University of Douai (France), a major center for English Catholicism in exile, though his studies were interrupted by war and then by his journey to Rome for the purpose of joining the Jesuits, to which Society he was admitted in 1580. After studying at the Jesuit College in Rome, he earned the degree of BA in 1584, the year in which he was ordained priest. He then taught at the new Venerable English College at Rome, another seminary for English and Welsh Catholics.

In 1586 Southwell was sent, at his own request, to England as part of the Jesuit mission to minister to existing English Catholics and attempt re-conversion of what had been a devotedly Roman Catholic nation. Exercising the Roman Catholic priesthood in England was considered treason, and of the more than 300 priests sent from Douai to England before 1600, more than 160 were executed. Southwell, after six years in England spent mostly serving as chaplain to various wealthy families, became one of these in 1595. He was beatified in 1929 and canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Southwell wrote religious tracts and poetry that were well known during his lifetime and after, though some were never printed at all and many were published under false names. He is now considered an important early Baroque writer. Some of his poetry was set to music soon after his death (Thomas Morley set parts of his Mary Magdalen’s Complaint at Christ’s Death, perhaps his most popular work), and portions of two of his poems are used in Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. ‘This little Babe’ is the second half of the following poem, a very fine elaboration of the theme of Christ’s utter humility in His Incarnation, and His means of victory through what to mortal eyes looks like utter weakness. Perhaps my favorite line is ‘...whome love hath linckd to feeble sence’.

New heaven, new warre.

Come to your heaven, yowe heavenly quires!
Earth hath the heaven of your desires;
Remove your dwellinge to your God,
A stalle is nowe His beste aboade;
Sith men their homage do denye,
Come, angells, all their fault supply.

His chilling could doth heate require,
Come, seraphins, in liew of fire;
This little ark no cover hath,
Let cherubs’ winges His boody swath;
Come, Raphiell, this babe must eate,
Prouide our little Tobie meate.

Let Gabriell be nowe His groome,
That first tooke upp His earthly roome;
Let Michell stand in His defence,
Whome love hath linckd to feeble sence;
Let Graces rocke, when He doth crye,
And angells singe His lullybye.

The same yow sawe in heavenly seate,
Is He that now suckes Marye’s teate;
Agnize your Kinge a mortall wight,
His borowed weede letts not your sight;
Come, kysse the maunger where He lies;
That is your bliss aboue the skyes.

This little babe so fewe daies olde,
Is come to rifle Satan’s foulde;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Him self for cold do shake;
For in this weake unarmèd wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

With teares He fightes and wynnes the feild,
His naked breste standes for a sheilde,
His battering shott are babishe cryes,
His arrowes, lookes of weepinge eyes,
His martiall ensignes, colde and neede,
And feeble fleshe His warrier’s steede.

His campe is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwarke but a broken wall,
The cribb His trench, hay-stalkes His stakes,
Of shepeherdes He His muster makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wounde,
The angells’ trumpes alarum sounde.

My soule, with Christ joyne thow in fighte;
Sticke to the tents that He hath pight;
Within His cribb is sureste warde;
This little babe will be thy garde.
If thow wilt foyle thy foes with joye,
Then flitt not from this heavenly boye.

agnize  acknowledge
wight  creature
weede  garments (cf. ‘widow’s weeds’)
letts  prevents