The Burning Babe Poem by Robert Southwell Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


“The Burning Babe” is a lyric poem written by the English Jesuit priest, Robert Southwell. The poem was written in 1595 and was published posthumously in a poetry collection called St. Peter’s Complaint. This collection is famously known to contain poems that Southwell wrote while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. “The Burning Babe” describes a religious vision experienced by the poem’s speaker who witnesses a baby burning on a cold winter night. Through the use of vivid imagery and biblical allusions, the poet explores on the profound mystery of the Incarnation and the redemptive power of Christ’s love. 

About the Author 

Robert Southwell (1561 – 21 February 1595) was an English Jesuit priest, poet, and martyr during the Elizabethan era. Born into a prominent Catholic family in Norfolk, England, Southwell faced the religious and political challenges of his time. He entered the English College in Douai, France, and later joined the Jesuit order, known for its commitment to education and missionary work. Southwell’s literary contributions are primarily focused on religious poetry and prose. He is recognized for his eloquent and deeply spiritual works that reflect his dedication to the Catholic faith. “Saint Peter’s Complaint, with other poems” (1595) is one of his notable collections, featuring poems such as “The Burning Babe.” Living during a period of intense religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants in England, Southwell’s allegiance to Catholicism and his association with the Jesuit order led to his arrest. In 1595, he was executed for treason under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, making him one of the Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation.


The poem consists of 14 lines and is written in form of a lyric. The poem narrates a mystical vision that is seen by the speaker, and thus, narrates the same. The poet has made use of “I” thereby making the poem a reflection of his own emotional state. 

Lines 1- 6

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,

Surpris’d 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 fed.


The poem starts with the speaker setting the scene of a cold winter night, suggesting a personal experience. Despite the cold, the speaker experiences a sudden warmth that makes his heart “glow”. The speaker is curious about the source of this warmth, and so he lifts up his “fearful” eyes to view what fire is near. The speaker is met with the surprising sight of a pretty baby that has appeared in the air and is seemingly on fire. Paradoxically, the burning babe is also weeping, shedding tears despite the intense heat. It is as though the babe’s tears have the power to quench the flames. Also, the paradox of the burning babe who is weeping suggests the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Christ, with the tears representing compassion and the fire symbolizing divine love.


In the first two lines itself, the poet sets a stark contrast- on one hand, we have the chilly wintery night and on the other hand we have the image of a burning babe. The image of the burning babe is also opposed to the tears of the babe, which is essentially a force that estinguishes fire. The entire poem is filled with images that are biblical allusions. In the first place, the burning babe represents Christ, and the image of fire symbolizes both the divine love and the transformative power of Christ’s sacrifice. Additionally, the winter night could symbolize the spiritual coldness or darkness before the arrival of Christ, similar to the biblical concept of people living in spiritual darkness before the advent of the Messiah (Isaiah 9:2).

Lines 7-14

“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 shame 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.”


In this section, the burning babe is speaking to the speaker. The babe claims that it is a newly-born, and is experiencing intense heat. Yet despite the heat, no one is approaching the burning babe to feel the warmth in their hearts, except for the burning babe. The infant’s “faultless” chest is likened to a furnace, with thorns serving as the fuel. Further on, love is compared to fire, and the expressions of love (sighs) are the smoke, while the ashes represent shame and scorn. The baby further remarks that justice is responsible for placing the fuel (thorns), while Mercy intensifies the burning coals. And lastly, the furnace is made to symbolize the process of refining souls, with human souls being the metal. The burning babe says that for cleansing human souls, it is the fire that is is working the souls to their good. The burning babe expresses the intention to become a cleansing bath, washing people in his blood, a reference to the Christian belief in Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of humanity.


This section also contains several biblical allusions. For instance, the 7th line echoes the idea of Christ being newly born and associated with fire, possibly alluding to the purifying nature of divine love (Malachi 3:2-3). The 10th line draws on the biblical imagery of God’s love as a refining fire (1 Peter 1:7). Lastly, line 13th refers to the Christian belief in Christ’s sacrificial death and the cleansing power of his blood, as mentioned in various biblical passages (Ephesians 1:7, Revelation 1:5). Thus, the poem explores several biblical themes such as divine love, sacrifice, and redemption. It reflects on the transformative effect of Christ’s sacrifice on the souls of humanity. Another important thing to notice is the furnace imagery, which symbolizes the process of purification and refinement, akin to biblical metaphors of God refining his people as silver or gold (Psalm 66:10, Malachi 3:3).

Lines 14-16

With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,

      And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.


With this, the burning babe vanishes out of the speaker’s sight and swiftly “shrinks” away. And it is then that the speaker recalls that that day was Christmas Day, when Jesus Christ was born. 


It this in these two last lines that we are told that the burning babe was nothing but a visison of the speaker’s. Additionally, the speaker mentions that it is the day of Christmas, thereby strengthening all the imagery and allusions that are mentioned beforehand in the poem.