Robert Southwell and Benjamin Britten

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;

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Robert Southwell was a recusant Catholic, meaning that he refused obedience to the Church of England.  A Jesuit, he was like a secret agent or a spiritual guerilla fighter for the Church of Rome within officially Protestant England. As such he was an outlaw, his life always at risk. Southwell’s vision of spiritual battle–set within Benjamin Britten’s galloping music–strangely stirs my Lutheran heart. It reflects courage,  spiritual strength, uncommon devotional imagination and artistry, a far distant cry from  our usual casual Christian observances and commemorations. Here’s the poem and a performance of Britten’s setting of part of it within his Ceremony of Carols, sung by a French children’s choir.

New Heaven,  New War

By Robert Southwell

Come to your heaven, you heavenly quires!
Earth hath the heaven of your desires;
Remove your dwelling to your God,
A stall is now His best abode;
Sith men their homage do deny,
Come, angels, all their faults supply.

His chilling cold doth heat require,
Come, seraphim, in lieu of fire;
This little ark no cover hath,
Let cherubs’ wings his body swathe;
Come, Raphael, this babe must eat,
Provide our little Toby meat.

Let Gabriel be now His groom,
That first took up His earthly room;
Let Michael stand in His defence,
Whom love hath link’d to feeble sense;
Let graces rock when He doth cry,
And angels sing this lullaby.

The same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is He that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agnize your King a mortal wight,
His borrow’d weed lets not your sight;
Come, kiss the manger where He lies;
That is your bliss above the skies.

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 unarmèd wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

With tears He fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield,
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows, looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns, cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, hay-stalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His muster makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that He hath pight;
Within His crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.

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