Robert Southwell (1561-1595) was a Catholic priest who served as Prefect of Studies in the English College at Rome after being ordained in 1584 in his early twenties. He returned home to his native country in 1586 as a Jesuit missionary during the reign of Queen Elizabeth l, when it was dangerous for a Catholic priest to be in England. He spent six years going from family to family administering the sacraments until he was arrested in 1592 while celebrating Mass and thrown in the Tower of London. Tortured for three years, he was hung on February 11, 1595. He was canonized in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, a representative group of perhaps 300 martyrs that died for their faith between 1535 and 1679.
While he authored both prose and poetry, he is best known for his poem Burning Babe, included with the publication of St. Peter's Complaint, published in 1595.
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, though scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed,
As though his floods should quench his flames, which with his tears were fed.
"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 shame 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 vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas Day.