Title: SOUTHWELL'S NEW HEAVEN, NEW WARRE ,  By: Batley, Karen, Explicator, 00144940, Fall94, Vol. 53, Issue 1
Database: MasterFILE Premier

Is "New heaven, new warre" a single poem or two poems printed in error as one? The answer makes a significant difference to our interpretation of the poem. It contains two distinctly different tones, one devotional (lines 1-24) in admiration of the newly incarnated Christ, the other (24-28) military and obviously in the Jesuit tradition of portraying Christ as the leader of an army. Louis Martz (524-5) attempts to prove rather inconclusively that the poem accords with the structures of devotional meditation. He maintains a two-part structure by leaving a space at lines 24-25 (the close of the manger scene and the beginning of the military section), thereby avoiding a decision on what Southwell's intentions might have been. Helen Gardner, on the other hand, is far more definite, stating (39) that "although printed as a single poem, this is two parallel poems on the Nativity, or possibly on the Nativity and the Circumcision." However, a close examination of the text reveals no reference to the circumcision. Further, despite her conviction that there are two poems, Gardner makes no separation between them in her printed version (40), opting for a "single" poem, at least in appearance. Similarly, Pollard Brown maintains that "the single title was apparently given in error to two separate poems linked only by metrical form and subject. There is distinct change in theme, tone and imagery in the last four stanzas of the poem, 11.25-48" (124). However, Jean Robertson shows that the poem is more likely to be a single one (82-3). Basing her argument on Southwell's use of appropriate and witty titles, she points out that Southwell, like Donne and Herbert, followed the practice of providing titles that deliberately created an integrated effect for the poem as a whole. In the light of this, and considering the thematic structure of the poem, the title "New heaven, new warre" would suggest that Southwell intended a single poem.

"New heaven, new warre" belongs to a group of four nativity poems. The other three are entitled "A Childe my Choyce," "New Prince, new pompe" (a title echoing the rhythm and structure of that of "New heaven, new warre") and "The burning Babe." The group as a unit is characterized by a single factor--the poet's wonder at the incarnation and the paradoxical power of the apparently helpless infant to save humankind.[1] The structure and meaning of "New heaven, new warre" obviously depend on this very paradox. My own view, reinforced by these observations, is that "New heaven, new warre" is almost certainly a single poem based on a scriptural account and that the "new heaven" and "new warre" of the title actually refer compositely to the incarnation and its purpose for salvation. There cannot be a "new heaven" or "new warre" without there having been a previous one. This is illustrated in Scripture. The first war in Heaven took place when Lucifer challenged God's authority and was consequently expelled from Heaven. That Christ was present during this war is shown by his own words in Luke 10:18[2]:

And he said to them, I saw Satan as a lightening fal from heaven.

In Rev. 12:7-9 we are told:

And there was made a great battel in heaven, Michael and his Angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his Angels: and they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast forth, the old serpent, which is called the Devil and Satan, which seduceth the whole world: and he was cast into the earth, and his Angels were throwen down with him.

This is the first, or old war, caused presumably by Satan's attempt to rifle God's fold and challenge his authority. Now, with the incarnation, Heaven has come to earth to challenge Satan in a return bout (the baby has come "to ryfle sathans folde"). Thus the new heaven, to which the Angels, Seraphs, and Cherubs, as well as the Archangels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, accompanied by the Graces, are summoned, is earth. The call in lines 8-18 for all these heavenly beings to take up their places is the start of the "new warre," the military campaign for salvation which takes place in the second part of the poem. This is the integrating factor for the two different "tones" in the poem. In the first, heavenly war, Michael was Lucifer's chief opponent; in the "new warre" he will "stand in his [Christ's] defence" (15) because the latter must now himself defeat "sathan" in order to achieve humanity's salvation.

The text itself also offers some internal evidence in favor of a single poem. The first section, lines 1-24, could possibly stand as a complete unit, but the second, military section would, standing alone, start very abruptly. Its "first" line, "This little Babe so few dayes olde," seems logically to refer to the infant described in lines 1-24. The war described in the second half explains why Michael should need to "stand in his defence" in the first section. Further, if lines 25-48 were to be considered as a complete unit, the reference in line 29 would beg explanation. "For in this weake unarmed wise" implies that the condition has been explained, which of course it has, in the first section. Finally, the concluding stanza of the poem draws the two different sections together--the incarnation and the battle for souls, thereby suggesting further that this is a single poem and should be interpreted as such.

My soule with Christ joyne thou in fight,
Sticke to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his Crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard:
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.


1. Southwell states the paradox in a single line in "A Childe my Choyce": "Almightie babe whose tender armes do force all foes to flie." He is obviously concerned with the concept as the motivating principle of the group of poems.

2. All scriptural references are taken from the Douay-Rheims (1582) version of the New Testament, edited by L. A. Weigle.


Brown, Nancy P. and McDonald, J. H., eds. The Poems of Robert Southwell, S. J. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

Gardner, H. ed. The Metaphysical Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

Martz, L. The Meditative Poem. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963.

Weigle, L. A., ed. New Testament, Rheims 1582 in (The) New Testament Octopla: Eight English Versions of the New Testament in the Tyndale-King James Tradition. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons.


By KAREN BATLEY, University of South Africa