Christopher McElroy

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A Theological Reading of ‘The Nativity of Christ’ by Robert Southwell

The Nativity of Christ

Ordained a priest for the Society of Jesus in 1584, Robert Southwell begged to be allowed to his home country of England, to minister among Catholics. To volunteer for such a mission was to face the certainty of martyrdom under the Protestant rule of Queen Elizabeth I. From 1586-1592, Southwell eluded capture, serving Catholics primarily in the rural south of England. This missionary work was abruptly cut short in 1592 by his arrest and subsequent torture and imprisonment, judged to be an enemy of the Anglican Church of England. Three years were spent in prison before his summary trial and execution in 1595. As the descendant of a reasonably ‘well to do’ family, Robert Southwell was permitted to have pen and paper in his prison cell. During this time he built on his earlier literary work, by composing several poetic works. These compositions sought not to extol material things, but rather to proclaim the magnificence and beauty of God’s spiritual creation. Unlike many of the other poets of his day, Southwell concentrated solely on the writing of religious poetry – work that was read by, and subsequently an influence on, the playwright William Shakespeare.

It is clear that a brief analysis of Southwell’s frame of mind will contribute to the building of a poietic analysis of his poetry. A devout Catholic, who returned to England with the sure knowledge of death, Southwell nonetheless put others before himself, a heroic act that led to him being canonized and named as one of the 40 representative martyrs of England and Wales in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Whilst he was known to be a popular writer in his day, little evidence other than his writings survive which would give us further insight into his process of creation of composition. Southwell’s writings display a high level of mysticism that we may assume derive from his personal transcendental experiences. His poems reflect sincerity, vivid imagination and references to both torture and one who awaits death.

‘The Nativity of Christ’ was written as part of a set of four Christmas poems, of which ‘The Burning Babe’ is undoubtedly his most famous composition. Written under imprisonment, it is worth noting that time would have ceased to be important. For a priest grounded in the liturgical year, with it’s annual cycle of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, it must have been a great hardship to no longer be able to celebrate these mysteries. Thus, Southwell set pen to paper to express his thoughts on the incarnation of Christ, not for worldly uses, but rather as a form of comfort both to himself and his fellow imprisoned Catholics. It is not by chance that he set texts regarding the beginning of Christ’s life as he himself faced the end of his own life.

The Nativity of Christ consists of four stanzas, each with six lines set in a decasyllabic form. The rhymes follow a conventional ABABCC form within each stanza, whilst the simplicity of the written text betrays the dense theological content, which touches on (among others) the mystery of the Trinity, Christ as the word made flesh and Christ as God’s supreme Gift to us. Whilst the poem remains in spirit faithful to it’s title, each stanza focuses on a particular angle of the act. Stanza 1 describes the birth; Stanza 2 meditates on the joy of the word made flesh. The 3rd Stanza dwells on Gods supreme Gift, moving in the last two lines to a personal application, before concluding in the last stanza with reference to the eternal redemption that destroys the sin of Eden.

‘Behold the father is his daughter’s son’ so reads the first line. This seemingly illogical statement can only be true if the Father and the Son are in fact one – a reference to two of the members of the triune God. The Son was not made, but begotten by the Father through the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Southwell’s poetic opening sentence conjures up an image of God ‘passing through’ Mary to take our worldly flesh, without betraying Mary’s virginity. The reference to the bird and the nest is similarly a metaphor alluding to the same process by which God became man. Reference is made to the unending time in the kingdom of God, a gift now made possible for us by the birth of Christ. The rhyming couplet that concludes the first stanza refers to the son as both the ‘Word’ and the ‘mirth of heaven,’ illustrating the human nature of the child who is dumb, weeps and is feeble. So, this first paragraph tells us three things: firstly the relationship between God, Mary and the Son, and also the description of the ‘humanness’ of the son. The middle lines inform us of the consequence of the birth: the possibility of eternal life for us all.

It is noted that in the first stanza, and indeed throughout the whole poem, that the only naming of God is simply that; God. There is no differentiation between God the Father and God the Son, which helps to underlie the theological impetus that the two are in fact one. Somewhat surprising however, is the absence of any reference to the third person of the trinity.

Stanza 2 may be viewed from the context of a condemned prisoner. The poet variously names gifts of God and how our senses and bodily parts might receive Gods wisdom. This litanic text may reflect the torture that Southwell underwent in his defense of the faith: ‘O dazzled eyes’ ‘Dull ears’ ‘Heavy hearts.’ Beyond each of these worldly pains however is the grace of God: ‘living spring’ ‘sun of grace.’ The rhyming couplet at the end of the stanza cleverly sums up each of the bodily adjectives (death, dark, deafness, despair) with the graces bestowed by God (life, light, Word, joy.)

Stanza 3 consists of two unequal parts. The first four lines is a complexed mystical exploration of the gift of God. Southwell plays on the words Gift, giver and given in what is the most dense writing of the poem. The rhyming couplet is unique throughout the poem, as it is the only time the writer turns to writing in the first person. Southwell here justifies our existence as being God’s gift, God giving himself freely to us as his gift and our life being for his purpose. This whole paragraph has a reverse psychological effect on the reader, the gifts of God flowing both from God to us, and from us to God: a two way process. This is particularly well illustrated by the consecutive use of both a noun and verb of the same base: ‘This gift doth here the giver given below.’ Whereas the first two stanzas specifically named modes of Gods presence in our world, this 3rd stanza seems to elude more to the mystical omnipresence of God both here and everywhere.

The final stanza returns to the theme of nature (as found in the first stanza) with references to man and beast. The uplifting nature of this stanza reflects on the joy of the God in the flesh and its consequence of refreshing sinners. The first line refers to the sin of Adam committed in the Garden of Eden, and the role of the beast whom the Lord God condemned. Southwell then alludes to the birth of God as being the ‘new Adam,’ the one who restores the possibility of eternal life for us all. Hay plays a pivotal role in this stanza: ‘Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh. Now God is flesh and lies in manger pressed As hay..’ This repetition elevates the importance of the ‘ae’ vowel contained in this word, the brightness of this vowel helping to express the joy of the word made flesh.

Southwell’s writing style throughout the poem is lyrical, whilst at the same time the text is also didactic, leading one to wonder whether he used the text as teaching material for both Catholics and non-Catholic he may have encountered in prison. There is no clearly defined audience for the poem, rather the reader feels like a person ‘overhearing’ the text. The logical layout and self content of each stanza make ‘The Nativity of Christ’ particularly suitable material on which to meditate – a feeling of stability in the midst of chaos, and an opportunity to place our needs and desires in the light of him who sacrificed himself for us.

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