“Christ’s Bloody Sweat” by Robert Southwell

Boeve, Edgar G._Phoenix, Death
Edgar G. Boevé (American, 1929–2019), Phoenix, Death, ca. 1980. Oil and acrylic on tea chest paper. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones, at the Center Art Gallery, Calvin University, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2015.

Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,
That yields, that streams, that pours, that doth distill;
Untilled, undrawn, unstamped, untouched of press,
Dear fruit, clear brooks, fair oil, sweet wine at will!
Thus Christ prevents, unforced, in shedding blood,
The whips, the thorns, the nails, the spear, and rood.

He pelican’s, he phoenix’, fate doth prove,
Whom flames consume, whom streams enforce to die:
How burneth blood, how bleedeth burning love?
Can one in flame and stream both bathe and fry?
How could he join a phoenix’ fiery pains,
In fainting pelican’s still bleeding veins?

Elias once, to prove God’s sovereign power,
By prayer procured a fire of wondrous force
That blood and wood and water did devour,
Yea stones and dust beyond all nature’s course:
Such fire is love, that, fed with gory blood,
Doth burn no less than in the driest wood.

O sacred fire! come, show thy force on me,
That sacrifice to Christ I may return:
If withered wood for fuel fittest be,
If stones and dust, if flesh and blood will burn,
I withered am, and stony to all good,
A sack of dust, a mass of flesh and blood.

Note: I modernized the spellings of this poem for readability, but there is a beauty to the early modern English; see the original here.

Robert Southwell (ca. 1561–1595) was an English Catholic priest and poet living during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Educated at Jesuit colleges in France and Italy, he returned to his native England as a missionary in 1586. But he suffered persecution under the country’s Protestant regime, and had to conduct his ministry in concealment. In his early thirties he was caught celebrating the Mass and was subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and hanged for treason. None of his English poems was published in his lifetime, but many of them circulated as manuscripts. He probably wrote this one sometime during his three years in the Tower of London, awaiting execution.

“Christ’s Bloody Sweat” opens with a reflection on Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane the night before the Crucifixion, when “in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44). This bloody sweat may be a figure of speech Luke uses to convey the intensity of the moment, or it may be an actual condition called hematidrosis, in which capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, causing them to exude blood—something that can occur in rare cases when a person is under extreme physical or emotional stress.

In the first stanza of the poem, “Southwell introduces various fluids that represent the creative effusions of Christ’s love, with an extravagant reiteration of images that emphasises the extravagance of that love,” writes the Rev. Patrick Comerford in his commentary on the poem.

Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,
That yields, that streams, that pours, that doth distill;
Untilled, undrawn, unstamped, untouched of press,
Dear fruit, clear brooks, fair oil, sweet wine at will!
Thus Christ prevents, unforced, in shedding blood,
The whips, the thorns, the nails, the spear, and rood.

Southwell describes Christ as rich, fertile soil that yields sweet fruit; a spring of living water; an olive from which consecrated oil is distilled (for the anointing of the newly baptized and newly ordained); and a grape that yields fine wine. It may help you to read each phrase vertically down the first four lines: “Fat soil that yields, untilled, dear fruit”; “full spring that streams, undrawn, clear brooks”; “sweet olive that pours, unstamped, fair oil”; “grape of bliss that doth distill, untouched of press, sweet wine at will!”

“Prevent” in this context means to go before. In other words, even before Jesus is captured by the Roman soldiers, tortured, and led to Calvary to be crucified, he sheds his blood in Gethsemane. Without any physical forces acting upon him. “Rood” is an archaic word for the cross.

Stanza 2 references two birds of lore that were popular symbols of Christ: the pelican and the phoenix.

He pelican’s, he phoenix’, fate doth prove,
Whom flames consume, whom streams enforce to die:
How burneth blood, how bleedeth burning love?
Can one in flame and stream both bathe and fry?
How could he join a phoenix’ fiery pains,
In fainting pelican’s still bleeding veins?

The pelican was said (by Epiphanius, Augustine, and other church fathers) to revive or feed her young with her own blood; she would peck at her breast until she died so that her little ones might have life. The phoenix is a fantastical bird from classical mythology that burns itself to ashes on a funeral pyre ignited by the sun but then rises up out of those ashes, renewed.

Southwell ponders how Christ can be both pelican and phoenix. Did he bleed to death (losing streams of blood), or did he die by burning? The image in line 10 is quite gruesome: Christ simultaneously is “bathe[d]” in blood and fries in flames. The fire is, of course, metaphoric. But it becomes here, along with the blood, an emblem of divine love. A love that bleeds and burns, and that is all-consuming.

The fire and blood imagery continues in stanza 3, where Southwell refers to the famous contest on Mount Carmel between Elijah (a prophet of Yahweh) and the prophets of Baal (see 1 Kings 18).

Elias once, to prove God’s sovereign power,
By prayer procured a fire of wondrous force
That blood and wood and water did devour,
Yea stones and dust beyond all nature’s course:
Such fire is love, that, fed with gory blood,
Doth burn no less than in the driest wood.

To prove the supremacy of the God of Israel over Baal, Elijah issues a challenge. He and Baal’s prophets would each prepare a bull for sacrifice and lay it on a stone altar but light no fire. They would then pray each to their own god and see which god answers by sending fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice. The prophets of Baal accept the challenge, but no fire comes to light their altar, despite their most fervent entreaties. Elijah, to increase the stakes, even soaks his bull and the wood it lies on in water, three times over—and still fire comes from above, devouring, as Southwell writes, “blood and wood and water . . . [and] stones and dust beyond all nature’s course.”

God’s love is like that fire, Southwell says. The implication, I think, is that on the cross, the love of the Son (who gives himself as a sacrifice) and the love of the Father (who accepts the sacrifice) meet. (I know there are varying interpretations of the nature of the atonement and the role of the Father in the Crucifixion, but I’m simply trying to interpret Southwell here.)

In the poem’s final stanza, Southwell considers how he ought to respond to divine love as expressed in Christ’s passion.

O sacred fire! come, show thy force on me,
That sacrifice to Christ I may return:
If withered wood for fuel fittest be,
If stones and dust, if flesh and blood will burn,
I withered am, and stony to all good,
A sack of dust, a mass of flesh and blood.

He calls on God to accept, in return, his sacrifice—of praise and thanksgiving and obedience (Heb. 13:15–16; Ps. 50:23) and of his very self (Rom. 12:1–2). He probably had his martyrdom in mind. He acknowledges that he is but a withered, soggy, stony-hearted “sack of dust” but prays that God would make him fit to receive and broadcast the fire of love from on high.

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