Literary corpus: the works of Robert Southwell

The Jesuit poet Robert Southwell (1561-1595) is something of a forgotten figure in literary studies. But in his own moment, he was a powerfully influential and frequently republished author, most printed and most read after his execution in 1595, when his notoriety as either a holy martyr or a notorious traitor surely became part of his value to the literary market. When in 1620 William Barret published the first of three editions of this English collected works, he characterised it as a literary ‘reanimation’: recompiling the body of the author into a book. Unlike the monumental literary folios of Jonson (1616) and Shakespeare (1623) which bracket it historically, this little duodecimo volume does not heavily memorialise its author, but it does bring into view a corpus—a body of work—that defies easy confessional categorisation, and offers a glimpse of a literary-historical alternative to the secularising tendency that guides modern understanding of post-Reformation literature. Here, we see three different representations of the content of this work: the actual title-page of the 1630 edition, with the engraving depicting the saints of the title framed by gospel scenes; the title page of a different Southwell collection, produced by the English Catholic press in St Omer in 1620; and a portrait of Southwell, one of a set of engravings of famous English Jesuits produced around 1608, and which often appears in copies of early printed editions of Southwell’s, bound in by devout readers or Catholic booksellers. BW

St Peters Complaint Mary Magdal. Teares. With other workes of the author R.S. (London: J. Haviland for Robert Allott, 1630).

CUL: Syn 8.63.415

Further Reading

Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination 1558-1660 (Cambridge, 1999).

Patrick Collinson, Arnold Hunt, and Alexandra Walsham, ‘Religious Publishing in England 1557-1640’, in John Barnard and D.F. McKenzie (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Book in England, Volume IV: 1557-1695 (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 29-66.

Jeffrey Todd Knight, Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections, and the Making of Renaissance Literature (Philadelphia, 2013).

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