Saturday, January 07, 2012

Three Gifts They Bring, Three Gifts They Bear Away

The Epiphanye
by Robert Southwell

To blase the rising of this glorious sunne,
A glittringe starre appeareth in the Easte,
Whose sight to pilgrimm-toyles three sages wunne
To seeke the light they long had in requeste;
And by this starre to nobler starr they pase,
Whose armes did their desired sunne embrace.

Stall was the skye wherein these planettes shynde,
And want the cloude that did eclipse their rayes;
Yet through this cloude their light did passage finde,
And percd these sages' harts by secrett waies,
Which made them knowe the Ruler of the skyes,
By infant tongue and lookes of babish eyes.

Heaven at her light, Earth blusheth at her pride,
And of their pompe these peeres ashamed be;
Their crownes, their robes, their trayne they sett aside,
When God's poore cotage, clowtes, and crewe, they see;
All glorious thinges their glory nowe dispise,
Sith God contempt, doth more then glory-prize.

Three giftes they bringe, three giftes they beare awaye;
For incense, myrrhe and gould, faith, hope and love;
And with their giftes the givers' hartes do staye,
Their mynde from Christ no parting can remove;
His humble state, his stall, his poore retynewe,
They phansie more then all theire ritch revenewe.

I just realized that St. Robert was pretty much my age when he was hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. A little sobering, that. This Southwell poem doesn't seem to be one of the more quoted poems, but I think it works very well. Southwell is usually considered the first of the Metaphysicals, and works of metaphysical poetry can be a bit gymnastic (as it gets sometimes with John Donne), but here all the metaphysical conceits are relatively mild and the paradoxes delineated with some subtlety, and the wit never obscures the point, and Southwell displays here his usual knack for not letting the didactic overwhelm the lyric.

Even with the original spelling, it's very readable if you read it aloud ('clowtes' is 'clothes'), and, really, you should always read Southwell aloud.


  1. Chance Woods12:34 PM

    If you like Southwell's poem, you should definitely check out Richard Crashaw's "Epiphany Hymn," which is clearly building on some of the poetic motifs of Southwell's poem.  As you note, Southwell is often believed to have been very influential on writers such as John Donne and George Herbert (the so-called "Metaphysicals"), but Crashaw is a more interesting case.  After converting to Catholicism he was exiled during the English Civil War and died very young.  Still, his "Epiphany Hymn" is, to my mind, one of the best poems of the seventeenth century and yet remains under-studied.

    By the bye, are you still taking correspondence these days?

    All best,

  2. branemrys12:49 PM

    Hi, Chance,

    I'll have to look more closely at Crashaw's poem.

    I am indeed still taking correspondence, although until school fully starts up it will be rather inconsistent; the austincc address, if you have it, will definitely get to me in a reasonable amount of time.


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