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À mon chevet: Robert Southwell

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

Benjamin Britten chose poetry by the Elizabethan poet Robert Southwell for two of the movements of his Ceremony of Carols. Heard in a recent performance, Southwell's words have been haunting me for the last few days. His poetry was published posthumously, and he wrote most of it while suffering in prison before his execution. Southwell was a Jesuit, ordained after his education in France, who had come back to England to serve Catholic families in secret. After six years, he was arrested, tortured, and ultimately martyred (February 20, 1595), following in the footsteps of Edmund Campion and others, although his sainthood was not officially recognized until 1970. Most of the poetry that was later published was written during his secret ministry and imprisonment, which accounts for its intensity and fervor. The poetry is in the public domain, of course.


Behold a silly tender babe,
In freezing winter night,
In homely manger trembling lies;
Alas! a piteous sight.

The inns are full, no man will yield
This little pilgrim bed;
But forced he is with silly beasts
In crib to shroud his head.

Despise him not for lying there,
First what he is enquire;
An orient pearl is often found
In depth of dirty mire.

Weigh not his crib, his wooden dish,
Nor beast that by him feed;
Weigh not his mother's poor attire,
Nor Joseph's simple weed.

This stable is a prince's court,
The crib his chair of state;
The beasts are parcel of his pomp,
The wooden dish his plate.

The persons in that poor attire
His royal liveries wear;
The Prince Himself is come from heaven,
This pomp is praised there.

With joy approach, O Christian wight!
Do homage to thy King;
And highly praise this humble pomp
Which He from heaven doth bring.

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