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The Burning Babe

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As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
      So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
      With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
      And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

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The Burning Babe

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  • Robert Southwell, a poet and prose writer of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson's generation, spent his adolescence and early manhood in Italy. His brief literary career flourished during the years when he was an underground Jesuit priest in Protestant England. It is agreed that Southwell brought with him from Italy the themes and the aesthetics of militant Counter-Reformation piety, although there is disagreement over the terms used to describe the resulting style: baroque, mannerist, metaphysical, meditative, Petrarchan, and contemplative are among the adjectives proposed. There is also disagreement over Southwell's literary achievement and the extent and significance of his influence. What cannot be doubted is his extraordinary popularity during his brief English career and the forty years following it. Contemporary writers seem to have been impressed by his clear, precise English, by the beauty of its rhythms, and by Southwell's gift for combining passion with moral and intellectual analysis. There...

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