In “The Burning Babe” sixteenth-century British poet Robert Southwell reflects on the love of Christ for fallen humanity. Through poetic imagery he combines the story of Christ's birth with accounts of his Passion and Death. His poem gives an unforgettable portrait of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Have your students read the poem and complete the questions and activity from the book The Catholic Spirit: An Anthology for Discovering Faith Through Literature, Art, Film, and Music.
The Burning Babe
As I in hoary winter’s night
Stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised 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 bred:
‘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, shames 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.
Reading for Comprehension
- What surprises the narrator when he encounters the infant?
- Name two traditional images of the Nativity in the poem.
- Name two images of Christ's Passion in the poem.
- Why does the Babe weep in Southwell’s poem?
Reading for Understanding
How does Southwell’s poem represent Christ as true God and true man?
Write your own short poem or journal entry that reflects your love for humanity, in spite of human sinfulness.
Research and write a short synopsis of the life of St. Robert Southwell. Answer: When did he live? Why was he martyred? When was he canonized?