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Robert Southwell’s “New Heaven, New Warre”

In our previous post we discussed how the poets Harry Morris and Sister M. Madeleva drew a line connecting the wood of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil with the wood of Christ’s crib and cross.  In doing this they followed an ancient Christian tradition dating back to Irenaeus of Lyon in the second century.  This tradition expressed the Christian teaching that in his work of salvation God would utilize even the instruments of sin and man’s fallenness; thus nothing is left without meaning and purpose.

Our next poem is “New Heaven, New Warre”[1] by Robert Southwell (1561-1595).  In it he extends back to the Nativity the related classical Christian theme of Christ the victor.  However, he begins with a call to the angels to descend to the new heaven, where God has chosen to dwell in a stall.

Come to your heaven you heavenly quires[2],

Earth hath the heaven of your desires;

Remove your dwelling to your God,

A stall is now his best abode,

Sith[3] men their homage doe denie,

Come Angels all their fault supplie.

In addition to giving to their king his due praise, Southwell appeals to various angels and celestial beings to comfort and protect him who is now a “mortal wight,” or human being.  Yet, even though he is united to “feeble flesh,”

This little Babe so few dayes olde,

Is come to ryfle sathans[4] fold;

All hell doth at his presence quake,

Though he himself for cold doe shake;

For in this weake unarmed wise,

The gates of hell he will surprise.

Southwell highlights the mystery of the almighty overcoming Satan in the weakness of human flesh by means of a series of paradoxical military metaphors.

With teares he fights and winnes the field,

His naked breast stands for a shield;

His battering shot are babish cryes,

His Arrowes lookes of weeping eyes,

His Martiall ensigns cold and neede,

And feeble flesh his warriers steede.

Southwell concludes his Christmas poem with a call to his soul to “joyne thou in fight” and the assurance that “Within his Crib is surest ward/This little Babe will be thy guard.”  Southwell’s poem thus serves us as a reminder that Christmas is not only a season celebrating salvation—earlier he describes the crib as an ark, a reference to Noah’s ark which saved his family and mankind in them from God’s judgment—but also a call to join in the battle against Satan.  In Christmas the great reversal has begun, and we are to play our part.  Peace on earth has come and will come, but not without fierce resistance from mankind’s most powerful enemies.

Next up Rowland Watkyns.

[1] The complete poem can be found online at

[2] Choirs

[3] Since

[4] Rifle Satan’s

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