Robert Southwell’s religious poetry in early modern England

RobertSouthwell’s religious poetry in early modern England

Justlike many poets in early modern England, Southwell used poetry toexplicate existing literary and culture. Most of his famous poemssuch as St.Peters Complaintsdepicted early Christian grief (Davidson et al 51). It is importantto note that during his period, there was a strict land laws thatrestricted any kind of reformist thinking or ideas. In this regard,Southwell used poetry in the early modern England to explorereligious sorrows. In particular, this poetry sought to address themost pressing theological, literally and metaphysical issues duringthat period of post-reformation era (Davidson et al 8). Therefore,Southwell used poetry as a tool of expressing the most vital personaland religious doctrines as well as philosophies during thereformation period. Through his poetry, one gets a deeper insightregarding his personal theological commitment, faith and poeticpractice (Harrington 4). In other words, poetry can be used to revealthe relationship that existed between these three dynamic topics.

Throughsome of his poetry, one gets to understand the processes that he usedin demonstrating repentance or despair as was a common feeling in theearly modern England. It is worth noting that reformation in earlymodern England was characterized by poetic vitality as well astheological complexities (Sweeney 13). In this particular account,Southwell chose to express his deep religious grief and sorrow withinthe scopes of Catholic faith. Therefore one gets to understand thatreligious grief played a significant role as a resource that forcedwriters as Southwell to clearly express their theologicalcommitments. These theological commitments were depicted throughtheir personal experiences in the faith that they held (Sweeny 13).

Inhis early poems, he was able to express the more pressing religiousconcerns that were harbored by early Christians in England. Among themany questions that his poetry sought to address included the issueof soteriology and salvation, differences and identity, finitude andtime, Eucharist presence, nature of testimonies, gender devotions andpredication to God (Davidson et al 8). Despite the fact that allthese issues were significant and caused a lot of anxiety among theearly Christians, they could only be expressed through the particularlens of religion as chosen by Southwell. During this period, thoseliterally thinkers regarded this language of devoting sorrows as agrammar of tears (Devlin 45).

Asmentioned above, the language of sorrow was a popular move that wasadopted by early poets in illuminating important societal issues(Devlin 45). However, this particular language used specific anddistinct dialects. This means that poetry that came from Westerncountries was easily differentiated from others in other parts of theworld. However during the post reformation period, the language thatwas adopted by reformists such as Southwell was seen to being verycomplicated (Devlin 47). The idea that could explain why hisparticular poems used a complicated language of sorrow was the factthat he lived in the wake of political and religious violence. Thismeans that his literally writings as well as poetry were not purposedto compete in the then existing artistic traditional forms. Southwellknew the implications that came with writing his complicated poetry(Devlin 48). During that early period, it was almost impossible to beable to accurately interpret one’s poems that indicated sorrow.

Inearly modern England, holy mourning was expressed through artisticforms such as poetry. There were different perceptions that werebrought about by different techniques that poets adopted when writingtheir poems. There are those poems that seek to interrogate ratherthan conform to the existing traditions in religious sorrows (Sweeney39). In addition, poems were used in demystifying these sametraditions as well as to express their powers. However, Southwelladopted a more realistic approach that matched his state of mind andhis spiritual well being during the modern early period. His poetryis seen to bring about the direct expression of the devoted griefthat he felt. In this regard, his poetry held a more dynamic and yetcomplex theological approach (Scallon 75). He was able to expressplainly the personal experiences that he was undergoing throughduring that early modern period.

Southwellwas able to religiously meditate his own personal sorrows as the mostideal form of his supplication to God. His poetry had positive impactto the early modern religious cultures and English poetry (Scallon77). In this regard, he was able bring about positive influence tothe literally society by introducing poetry as a form ofcommunication with God. In addition, poetry was seen as a form ofsecondary psychological experience that a person had, which wasautonomous (Sweeney 49). This essentially means that this form ofexpressing personal sorrows was regarded as a sacred language ofexploring the inter-subjective and subordinated dimensions thatsorrows has. It is important to note that early modern culturesinsisted on the importance of depicting religion as a sacred form oflanguage.

Thesignificance of Southwell’s devotion towards sorrow reflected itssignificant historical complexity as well as its conceptual (Brownlow22). In addition, his works was seen as a form of devotional theme toGod and also as a theological concept. As a result, it had richinfluences in major literally, exegetical, devotional, iconographicaland doctrinal traditions. This implies that early modern poets had arich sense of sophistication in the way they were able to expresstheir difficult experiences (Brownlow 22). It is important tounderstand that expressing sorrow in itself was regarded and is stillregarded as a difficult process. They offered many early modernindividuals with a chance to reflect on the most significant issuesat the time. In this manner, Southwell contributed immensely in theway orders of grace and nature were regarded in the early modernEngland.

Mostimportantly, Southland’s poetry brought about Christians’awareness to the reality of mortality in regards to the human flesh(Harrington 65). His poetry emphasized the importance of confession,a practice that is highly valued by the Catholic Church. Thispractice of confession was seen as a sure way of disassociatingoneself from the worldly desires and embracing important spiritualcomponents for the soul (Harrington 66). This approach contributedimmensely to the reconnection of personal relationships with Godamong many people. This process of self understanding and knowingoneself as demonstrated in his poetry was mainly through the channelof sorrowful communication to God. Therefore, poetry was used as aneffective tool of experiencing personal relationship with God beingthe subject of faith in modern early England.


BrownlowWalsh Frank. RobertSouthwell.London. Twayne Publishers. 1996. Print.

DavisonPeter, Southwell Robert, Sweeney Anne. CollectedPoems.London. Carnage Publishers. 2007. Print

DevlinChristopher. Thelife of Robert Southwell, Poet and Martyr.London. Greenword Publishers. 1969. Print

HarringtonA. Mary. RobertSouthwell, Priest, Poet: A Biographical and Critical Study.California. University of California. 1923. Print.

ScallonD. Joseph. ThePoetry of Robert Southwell.London. M.E Sharpe Publishers. 1997. Print.

SweeneyAnne. RobertSouthwell: Snow in Arcadia, Redrawing the English Lyrics.Manchester. Manchester University Press. 2011. Print.