Title: SOUTHWELL'S CHRIST'S BLOODY SWEAT ,  By: Lowe-Evans, Mary, Explicator, 00144940, Summer96, Vol. 54, Issue 4
Database: MasterFILE Premier

Armed with the doctrines of Counter Reformation Catholicism, Robert Southwell, S J, had been given permission by his Order to use poetry as a means of spreading the rejuvenated dogma among English Catholics. A.D. Cousins contends that Southwell consistently articulated "a world-view centered on the divine agape [rather than devout eros] and on Christ whose principles he expounds . . . and (or) within which he explores the manifestations of God's selfless love" (38). I hope to demonstrate how Southwell's exegesis on the nature of divine love in "Christ's Bloody Sweat" is conveyed in fluid and fire imagery, which in turn suggests the two apparently opposing characteristics of Counter Reformation style: extravagance and conservatism. The traditions of Counter Reformation devotional style include the "plain," or conservative, rhetorical mode deriving from Tudor times, and the more extravagant theories of emblematic verse inspired by Renaissance emblem art. These speciously contrary poetic urges are reconciled in Southwell's poem as he demonstrates God's determination both to create love and to keep it in existence, even as energy is kept in existence when it changes form.

The opening stanza introduces the various fluids that represent the creative effusions of Christ's love. The extravagant reiteration of images emphasizes the extravagant love:

Fat soile, full spring, sweete olive, grape of blisse,
That yeelds, that streams, that pours, that dost distill,
Untild, undrawne, unstampt, untoucht of presse,
Deare fruit, clear brookes, faire oile, sweete wine at will:

Like the fecund earth of the Garden of Olives, Christ is the "fat soile," full partaker in our earthly nature; the "full spring," eternal source of living water, the "sweet olive" promising peace on earth and the holy chrism used to anoint the newly baptized and the newly ordained; the "grape of bliss," whose sweet wine intoxicates all who imbibe it with a divine drunkenness wherein the "self" is lost.

The restatement of effusion images foregrounds the spontaneity of Christ's love. Christ both "streams" and "dost distil" or exude love, involuntarily it would seem. The implied involuntariness is contradicted, however, by the phrase "at will" in the fourth line. Christ's choice was an important issue in Counter Reformation discussions regarding the theological implications of the Agony in the Garden. Christ's submitting to his Father's will in the Garden was deemed sufficient to redeem mankind. In the stanza's closing couplet this doctrinal issue is repeated:

Thus Christ unforst prevents in shedding blood
The whips, the thornes, the nailes, the speare, and roode.

In the Garden, Christ chooses to drink the cup ("not my will, but thine be done"); his choice, motivated by love, manifests itself in the bloody sweat. As it falls to the earth the blood renews God's covenant with humankind and "prevents" (anticipates and precludes the need for) the Passion and Crucifixion. As Karen Barley notes, "during the sixteenth century 'prevent' often meant 'to appear before time'" (1).

In the second stanza, Southwell borrows classic types, like the Church fathers before him, to express an "incomprehensible certainty" (Barley 4), as he combines fluid with fire imagery:

He Pelicans, he Phenix fate doth prove,
Whom flames consume, whom streames enforce to die,
How burneth bloud, how bleedeth burning love?
Can one in flame and streame both bathe and frie?
How could he joine a Phenix fiery paines
In fainting Pelicans still bleeding vaines?

Here Southwell reiterates the sufficiency and efficacy of Christ's love as exemplified in his act of the will. The choice Christ made in the Garden combines the "Pelican's" and the "Phenix fate." On one hand, Christ merits for humans all the grace that the bloody sacrifice of the cross would merit as the pelican had merited by her blood the lives of her children. On the other hand, he anticipates the phoenix's fate--the resurrection of the body--a manifestation of the principle of divine conservation.

Next Southwell reverses the experience of the love poet who typically asks his lady to change. Southwell is the poet of a Lover who cannot change. Thus, in asking "can one in flame and streame both bathe and frie?" Southwell attempts to help the reader understand the extravagant and conservative love Christ offers.

The third stanza continues the quest to understand divine love by tracing Southwell's personal attempt to know God, which is also always an attempt to teach the faithful. Here he provides an answer (suggested by the experiences of Elias) to the question posed in the second stanza's closing couplet:

Elias once to prove gods soveraigne powre
By praire procur'd a tier of wondrous force
That blood and wood and water did devoure,
Yea stones and dust, beyonde all natures course:
Such fire is love that fedd with gory bloode
Doth burne no less then in the dryest woode.

In calling upon Elias, Southwell moves from classical to Old Testament types, thereby teaching the reader how the fates of the phoenix and the pelican are joined. Through prayer, Elias was able to call down fire from heaven which consumed the captains and men of the king who had come to apprehend him. The fire demonstrates the efficacy and sufficiency of God's love as the fluid images in the first stanza have done. In the biblical account, Elias, taken into heaven in a fiery chariot, is thus preserved from death, and the principle of divine conservation again becomes operative. The emphasis on the prayer of Elias is implicit in the meditation on the Agony in the Garden in general. Christ's intensely human prayer that the "cup" pass away ends in submission to his Father's will. By his prayer, Christ "prevents" and yet merits all the grace of the Passion and death on the cross. Similarly, by the power of his prayer, Elias overcomes death and enters heaven in a whirlwind of fire. Thus, prayer becomes man's answer to the question of the phoenix and the pelican. Through prayer humans partake of the consequences of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Southwell successfully transmutes the fluids of the first stanza into the fire of the third by moving from Christ at prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, through the questioning of the pelican's and phoenix's fates in the second stanza, to the prayer of Elias in the third. Prayer, shored up by faith and submission to God's will, allows participation in both the effusiveness and the conserving quality of divine love.

Since the fourth stanza is itself a prayer, Southwell puts into practice the principle he has established:

O sacred Fire come shewe they force on me
That sacrifice to Christe I maye retorne,
If withered wood for fuell fittest bee,
If stones and dust, yf fieshe and blood will burne,
I withered am and stonye to all good,
A sack of dust, a masse of fieshe and bloode.

Like Elias, Southwell calls down the sacred fire of divine love the force of which will equip him to offer a sacrifice like Christ's. In the final line, Southwell reconciles all the poem's images by equating himself with "a sack of dust, a masse of fieshe and bloode." We know that Christ too fits this description, for we have been told that "He Pelicans, he Phenix fate doth prove." Finally, Southwell seeks identity with Christ through the prayer he offers in this meditation.


Batley, Karen. "Southwell's 'Christ's Bloody Sweat': A Jesuit Meditation on Gethsemane." UES 30.2 (1992): 1-7.

Cousins, A.D. The Catholic Religious Poets from Southwell to Crashaw: A Critical History. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1991.


"Conservation, Divine." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967 ed.

Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969.

Fairbridge, Maurice H. Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism. New York: KTAV Publishing, 1970.

Janelle, Pierre. Robert Southwell, the Writer. Marmaroneck, NY: Paul P. Appel, 1971.

McDonald, James H., ed. The Poems of Robert Southwell S. J. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967. 18-19.


By MARY LOWE-EVANS, University of West Florida