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This article is taken from PN Review 171, Volume 33 Number 1, September - October 2006.

Re-reading the Poetry of S. Robert Southwell Anne Sweeney


To read the poetry of Robert Southwell (1561–95) as it first appeared, in the original manuscript texts which were circulated in fear and in secret, is to involve oneself in the experience of Elizabethan men and women entangled in the turmoils of post-Reformation Europe. Southwell, a priest rather than a poet by vocation, was on a secret (and, by English law, treasonable) mission from Rome to England from 1586 until his capture in 1591 and execution four years later.

Much of Southwell’s output is, consequently, pastoral; not only his priestly sermons, printed on secret presses, but also his poetry, copied by hand and disseminated in manuscripts such as the one that forms the basis of a new edition of Southwell on which I have been working in collaboration with Peter Davidson. This manuscript (the ‘Waldegrave’ manuscript, Stonyhurst MS A.v.27) preserves an almost complete sequence of Southwell’s lyrics, for a Catholic readership, uncensored and unaltered. All printed editions issued in England are, to a greater or lesser degree, censored and compromised.

Like most of his contemporaries, Southwell wrote in Latin as well as English, yet these Latin poems are barely considered and have not been issued in any form for over a century. The Latin poems reflect participation in a wide and international literary culture. The English poems in the ‘Waldegrave’ manuscript capture a precise and local moment in the upwelling of English Catholicism. These vernacular works selected by the original copyist for ...

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