I recently attended a pre-Christmas choral concert in which some of the poetry of Robert Southwell, a sixteenth-century Jesuit priest, was set to music. I’d never before heard of Southwell, but I couldn’t help but be fascinated–well, amused, too–by the bizarre conceit of the verses in question. They all posited the infant Christ as a Satan-trouncing little Rambo. To quote from just part of one poem, “New Heaven, New War”:
This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield...
Southwell goes on and on in this fashion, in this poem (The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes/ Of shepherds he his muster makes...) and in others. I couldn’t get these odd verses out of my head, so I looked up Southwell on Wikipedia and learned why his devotional poetry was so ferocious: He defied Queen Elizabeth I’s ban on Roman Catholic priests, administered the rites of his church to English Catholics, was tortured and imprisoned in the Tower of London for doing so, and was ultimately hung, drawn, and quartered.
Not a funny fate at all. But Southwell’s poetry still sounds like it could have been written by Michael Palin circa Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.