St. Robert Southwell, S.J., and the Anglican Literary Patrimony

[On 21 February 2021, this post was shared to several pages on Facebook (St. Benet Biscop Chapter of St. John’s Abbey Oblates; Catholic Ordinariates of Anglican Tradition Informal Conversation Forum; and Anglican Ordinariate Forum). It was removed because it apparently “goes against our Community Standards on spam.” “We have these standards,” continue the Facebook administrators, “to prevent things like false advertising, fraud and security breaches.” There is no explanation as to what in the post constitutes false advertising, fraud, and/or security breaches.]

[The image is a line engraving of St. Robert Southwell, S.J., by Matthaus Greuter (Greuther) or Paul Maupin (Maupain), published 1608.]

St. Robert Southwell, S.J., born ca. 1561 in Norfolk, England, died a martyr’s death on this day, 21 February, in 1595 at Tyburn, London, England.  As his writings indicate, he would have considered his martyrdom his greatest accomplishment, not his writings, both poetry and prose.  “By force I live, in will I wish to dye; … Life is but losse, where death is deemed gaine” (from his poem “Life is but Losse.”)

But it is Southwell’s accomplishments as a writer I mention here.  For this Catholic martyr contributed to one of the cherished aspects of the Anglican patrimony: the place of poetry/literature in liturgy and spirituality.  Sir Herbert Grierson was not prepared to acknowledge this cross-confessional influence by a Catholic on Anglican and English literature.  “Southwell wrote in the manner of the Italians,” wrote Grierson, who characterized Southwell’s writing as “confectionary” and made up of “fireworks.”  As such, it “was not English poetry.”[1]  And there are Catholics who resist the idea that one who died a martyr in Elizabeth I’s England could nonetheless have played a role in revitalizing English writing—which was to remain largely un-populated by Catholics for several centuries—and that he could have helped establish the cultural and literary milieu in which the very Anglican Metaphysical Poets thrived.

This is not to claim Southwell as an “Anglican Notable” malgré lui.  There might have been at least some Anglican influence in Southwell’s early years.  But his mother maintained her Catholic faith and connections all her life,[2] and the Southwells’ Catholic sympathies were evident in the fact that they sent Robert abroad for his education, at the age of fourteen-fifteen, to Douai.  (Some of the Southwell wealth had been acquired at the expense of religious houses dissolved by Henry VIII.[3]  But this was no indication of anti-Catholic sympathies.  The Petre family in Essex had also profited from the Dissolution while remaining openly Catholic.)

Southwell’s education might have been imbued by a sense of being an Englishman in exile had his studies been centered at the English College.  But it seems he merely boarded at the English College in Douai.  He studied at the nearby French and Jesuit Collège d’Anchin.  Because of political upheavals, he was forced to decamp from Douai to Paris, where he continued his studies at the equally French and equally Jesuit Collège de Clermont in Paris.  He eventually made his way to Rome, where he entered the Society of Jesus.

Whether it was because of his Jesuit education or because of pre-dispositions of character and temperament, Southwell and the Jesuit charism seem to have been an ideal fit.  This was so not only in Southwell’s subsequent activity in England as a missionary priest but also in his writing.  Ignatian spirituality has a preference for “seeing in imagination the material place where the object is that we wish to contemplate.”[4]  Southwell’s poetic technique similarly draws “the viewer into the scene depicted and [demands] that he share the emotions of the original situation.”[5]  It is for this reason that Southwell’s poetry has been called “mannerist and baroque.” 

Exactly how, and in what ways, Southwell influenced English literature of the Elizabethan period and then of the Metaphysical Poets (including the literary style of the Caroline Divines) is a question well beyond my expertise.  Research in my own discipline, however, which is musicology, has established that characteristics of English spirituality sit uneasily with Baroque sensibilities in music.  Grierson’s dismissal of Southwell from the ranks of the Metaphysical Poets might have been extreme and might even have been colored by anti-Catholic bias.  (Gierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler was written in 1921, and this was when Grierson was Knight Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, which cannot have been a bastion of pro-Catholic sympathies.)  But it is possible that Southwell’s “confectionary” and “fireworks” were, anti-Catholic bias or not, a tad too sweet and too dazzling to appeal to English readers.  Indeed, Peter Davidson claims that when George Herbert wrote in Latin rather than in English, he showed a “pretty baroque” and “pretty un-mediated Continental influence” that was not present in his English voice.[6]

It is worth adding that though Newman famously identified St. Benedict with the poetic (see this reflection also), Newman was referring to St. Benedict very much in the medieval context.  It was a poetry of being and wonder more than a poetry of doing and action.  Poetry that flows from highly imaginative Ignatian prayer is modern and not of the same register.  Monastic poetry—whether it results in actual writing of verse or is more a matter of living life that is open to the wonder of God’s presence in the everyday—flows from and leads to hesychia (contemplative silence).  The Ignatian ideal, as Newman pointed out, is practical.  It does not eschew the beautiful, but it is an aesthetic that teems and bustles.  And in the sixteenth century, it was an aesthetic that reveled in feelings.  Read the following appeal Southwell wrote when he was denied immediate entry into the Society of Jesus: “How can I but wast in anguish and agony that find myself disjoined from that company, severed from that Society, disunited from that body wherein lyeth all my life my love my whole hart and affection.”[7]

Where this leaves Southwell’s influence in English literature and in English spirituality is not entirely clear. The more one delves into sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, the messier it all looks.  Indeed, such explorations might make us that much less inclined to be judgmental about those who sat on the fence and that much more awe-struck by those who had the perspicacity to sort things out as much as they did.  Theologically, Southwell was no fence-sitter.  What his views were on how he wished to contribute to what we now call English literature, however, are less clear-cut.  But the current state of scholarship seems to have moved far enough away from anti-Catholic bias to acknowledge that Southwell does deserve to be called an English writer, an English writer of significance (though his career was too brief and too hindered by trying to elude Topcliffe to produce a sizeable body of work), and perhaps even one of the Metaphysical Poets.  (Peter Davidson goes so far—perhaps too far?—as to suggest that the Metaphysical Poets should be identified as the “English Baroque [poets] of the School of Southwell.”[8])  I am not sure, however, that the current state of literary scholarship is alive enough to the differences between religious charisms and schools of spirituality to recognize what Southwell’s continental training as a Jesuit meant in relation to his English literary colleagues.

In short, though Southwell influenced Anglican writers, he was not influenced by Anglicanism.  That a writer is English and Catholic does not necessarily mean he is part of the Anglican patrimony.

Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.


[1] Peter Davidson, “Robert Southwell and the Revitalization of English Writing” – Robert Southwell and the Revitalization of English Writing (georgetown.edu) – ca. 6:30.

[2] Peter Davidson, “Robert Southwell and the Revitalization of English Writing” – Robert Southwell and the Revitalization of English Writing (georgetown.edu) – ca. 9:00.

[3] Robert Southwell SJ | Poetry Foundation

[4] Robert Southwell SJ | Poetry Foundation

[5] Robert Southwell SJ | Poetry Foundation

[6] Peter Davidson, “Robert Southwell and the Revitalization of English Writing” – Robert Southwell and the Revitalization of English Writing (georgetown.edu) – ca. 46:30.

[7] Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Anglia 14, fol. 80, under date 1578).  Quoted in Nancy Pollard Brown, “Robert Southwell” in the Oxford Dictionary of National BiographySouthwell, Robert [St Robert Southwell] (1561–1595), writer, Jesuit, and martyr | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (oxforddnb.com)

[8] Peter Davidson, “Robert Southwell and the Revitalization of English Writing” – Robert Southwell and the Revitalization of English Writing (georgetown.edu) – ca. 5:50.

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