The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Burning Babe

Saint Robert Southwell, S.J. (1561-1595), 1602

Adapted as a Carol; see: The Burning Babe ("As I In Hoary Winter's Night")

Source: Burton Egbert Stevenson, ed., The Home Book of Verse, Volume 1 (New York: Henry Holt And Company, 1912); Project Gutenberg Etext #2619.

As I in hoary winter's night
Stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat
Which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye
To view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright
Did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat,
Such floods of tears did shed,
As though His floods should quench His flames,
Which with His tears were bred:
"Alas!" quoth He, "but newly born
In fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts
Or feel my fire but I!

"My faultless breast the furnace is;
The fuel, wounding thorns;
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke;
The ashes, shames and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on,
And Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought
Are men's defiled souls:
For which, as now on fire I am
To work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath,
To wash them in my blood."
With this He vanished out of sight
And swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind
That it was Christmas Day.

Editor's Notes:

Rev. Robert Southwell was a member of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), a Roman Catholic order of priests and brothers. He was born in 1562, ordained in 1584, and following three years of imprisonment and torture, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1594-5 at the age of 33. He was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. During his lifetime, he was a popular poet, and he remained popular in England until the times immediately preceding the English Civil War.

It is reported that Ben Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that he would have been content to destroy many of his own writings if he had written "The Burning Babe." (Source: Arthur Henry Bullen, A Christmas Garland: Carols and Poems from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Time (London: J. C. Nimmo, 1885), p. 260.)

The following version of this poem is from Alexander Balloch Grossart, ed., The Complete Poems of Robert Southwell: For the First Time Fully Collected and Collated with the Original and Early Editions and Mss. (Printed for Private Circulation in London: Robbon and Sons, Printers, 1872), pp. 109-110. Reprinted as Volume 30 of Fuller Worthies' Library.


As I in hoary Winter's night stood shiveringe in the snowe,
Surpris'd I was with sodayne heat, which made my hart to glowe;
And liftinge upp a fearefull eye to vewe what fire was nere,
A prety Babe all burninge bright, did in the ayre appeare,
Who scorched with excessive heate, such floodes of teares did shedd,
As though His floodes should quench His flames which with His is teares were fedd;
Alas! quoth He, but newly borne, in fiery heates I frye,
Yet none approch to warme their hartes or feele my fire but I!
My faultles brest the fornace is, the fuell woundinge thornes,
Love is the fire, and sighes the smoke, the ashes shame and scornes;
The fuell Justice layeth on, and Mercy blowes the coales,
The mettall in this fornace wrought are men's defiled soules,
For which, as nowe on fire I am, to worke them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to washe them in My bloode:
With this He vanisht out of sight, and swiftly shroncke awaye,
And straight I called unto mynde that it was Christmas daye.


See our Memorial-Introduction for Ben Jonson's 'Conversation' with Drummond of Hawthornden on this poem. [above]

Line 5, Turnbull misreads 'exceeding:' line 6, also misreads 'with what' for 'which with.'

Editor's Note:

The reference to "Turnbull" is to William B. Turnbull, ed., The Poetical Works of the Rev. Robert Southwell, Now First Completely Edited (London: John Russell Smith, 1856), pp. 98-99.

Other Marion and Christmas-tide poems / carols by Robert Southwell, and the page numbers that those poems begin on, include:

All of these can be found in The Complete Poems of Robert Southwell (1872), available at both Google Books and, in multiple formats, the Internet Archive.

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