If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy…

Mystical Nativity by Sandro Botticelli c1500-1501 Oil on Canvas

Robert Southwell (1561-1595) was a native Briton, but also a Jesuit Roman Catholic priest in 16th C Protestant England, hence the very short life.  In 1586 he returned to England from Italy as a missionary to the Catholic families there. He was implicated in a plot by a young woman (under torture) and was subsequently held prisoner for three years, then tried, ahem, convicted of treason (which he vehemently denied, praying regularly for the Queen) on no evidence other than the torturous confession and eventually hanged, drawn (disembowelled) and quartered.  Southwell wrote several nativity-themed poems, all rather like a double-edged sword. You can read them here at Poem Hunter.  One, the Burning Babe which one often sees this time of year, is decidedly heart-breaking.

Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols set the last four stanzas of this startling poem to startling music, startlingly for women’s voices, accompanied of all things by a martially plucked harp, and employing echo in the stanza beginning “His camp” to effect pitched battle.  It is one of my very favorite Christmas pieces ever.  Some might find it odd, but are we not, this year, and every year, in a battle? And yet it is a battle best won through love and joy.  Merry Christmas!

New Heaven, New War

Come to your heaven, you heavenly choirs,
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 fault supply.

His chilling cold doth heat require,
Come, Seraphins, in lieu of fire;
This little Ark no cover hath,
Let Cherubs’ wings his body swath;
Come, Raphael, this Babe must eat,
Provide our little Tobie 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,
Let Angels sing his lullaby.

The same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is he that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agonize your King a mortal wight,
His borrowed 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, unarmed 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 made of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched 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 dight;
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 the heavenly boy.

To learn more about Robert Southwell, visit the Poetry Foundation’s biography.
Sandro Botticelli’s work the Mystical Nativity was completely unknown to the art world until the 1880’s.  Here is a bit of history about the piece, and its symbolism of judgement and the Second Coming of Christ.

Here is a You Tube video of the Benjamin Britten work “This Little Babe”
Merry Christmas!
As always, I’m grateful for your time in visiting my blog, and reading my posts.  It is, truly, a beautiful gift.  Thank you.

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