Antonio S. Oliver
Poetry and Religion in E.M.E.
Scott Pilarz, S.J.

Southwell and His Idea of Death as a Divine Honor

      The religious controversy that characterized the English Renaissance proved to be a great period for literature, as religious poets of both Catholic and Protestant faiths composed some of the most admirable poetry of the time. Among these poets was Robert Southwell, who utilized the religious aspects of the English Reformation as his muse and composed works that have both literary and religious artistic merit.
      Southwell was taught the Catholic doctrine during an epoch in England's history when the Protestant Church sought to destroy the Catholic Church and diminish the number of its followers. This effort, commenced during the reign of Henry VIII, was known the English Reformation due to its attempt to "regenerate" the English Church and remove the corrupt features of the Roman tradition. The hostilities between the divergent factions degenerated to such a degree that the persecution, torture, and even execution of proponents of either faith were fairly common occurrences of the time. This pursuit, especially acute during Southwell's life, presented him with the inspiration and the opportunity to produce some of his most famous poems. As a fervent Catholic and Jesuit, Southwell thought of it as his duty to aid fellow Catholics in those trying times by composing poetry that related directly to them, speaking about their problems and difficulties. He dedicated the later stage of his literary work to the propagation of the belief that the persecution endured by Catholics was akin to that experienced by the first Christians and, therefore, worthy of their endurance.
      As the several Letters written by the Apostles and other disciples of Christ indicate, the early existence of the Christian Church was marred by religious intolerance and persecution. Thousands of people, including the Apostles Peter and Paul, lost their lives because of their religious convictions. Their plight prompted the Catholic Church to declare them martyrs. Southwell endeavored to convince the remaining English Catholics that their terrible situation was not a cause of panic, but one of honor and spiritual growth instead, for martyrdom was one of the sincerest forms of religious devotion.
      One of Southwell's most enduring poems, "Life is but Losse" (51) is a perfect example of this main concern of his mature work. Throughout the seven stanzas, Southwell describes the martyrdom of English Catholics at the time, employing biblical figures of both Testaments (i.e., Samson and the Apostles). The poem's title forewarns the reader of the pessimistic tone Southwell uses to describe life. Its importance is minimal compared to death, as demonstrated in the line "Life is but losse, where death is deemed gaine." His notion of death being more attractive than life emanates from his conviction that being next to God is the perfect way to achieve spiritual bliss. Dedicating one's life to the propagation of the Lord's teachings, thus, will produce an even better outcome. "To him I live, for him I hope to dye" is Southwell' s manner of informing the reader of the reason for his existence, which does not end with death, but is further intensified by it.
      Southwell did not rely exclusively on biblical figures to present Catholic ideas about martyrdom. In "Decease Release" (47), he praises Mary Stuart, also known as the "Queen of Scots." The verses "Alive a Queene, now dead I am a Sainte/Once N: calld, my name nowe Martyr is/from earthly raigne debarred by restraint/in liew whereof I raigne in heavenly blisse" hint of her difficult life. Her life, full of bitterness, pales in comparison to the afterlife, her existence after death. "My life my griefe, my death hath wrought my joye" confirm the earlier suggestion that her martyrdom should not be considered as painful, since she has ascended to, and is enjoying, heaven. She did not fear death, since it brought her closer to Christ; therefore, English Catholics should not either, since mortal existence only restricts their relationship with the Lord.
      Southwell's poetry, written at a time when the mere fact of professing Catholic faith was sometimes considered an act of treason, served as inspiration for the English Catholics who were doubting their beliefs in light of the extremely difficult situation that surrounded them. This idea, incomprehensible to a reader unaware of the historical occurrences of the epoch, was in harmony with Catholic teachings and tradition. Therefore, Southwell should be considered not only as an important literary figure but also as a model Catholic who refused to compromise his faith during difficult times, and provided inspiration and support for his peers, the mark of an admirable human being.


1. Cousins, A.D. The Catholic Religious Poets From Southwell to Crashaw: A Critical History. London: Sheed and Ward, 1991.

2. Devlin, Christopher. The Life of Robert Southwell, Poet and Martyr. New York: Farrr, Strauss, 1956.

3. Southwell, Robert. The Book of Robert Southwell: Priest, Poet, Prisoner. London: Oxford, 1926.

©1997-2018 Antonio S. Oliver. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission of the Author.

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