Following Michael Dransfield’s poem about conflicted love, I remembered a seasonally-appropriate poem written four centuries before: Robert Southwell’s Joseph’s Amazement, which imagines the torment and self-questioning Mary’s husband would have felt to discover that Mary was pregnant. Southwell moves between first and third persons to describe Joseph’s anguish, which he does not resolve, instead ending in a similar place of uncertain quandary to Dransfield. Perhaps this lack of resolution is another reason Southwell’s poetry sounds so modern, and so fresh.
When Christ, by growth, disclosed his descent
Into the pure receipt of Mary’s breast
Poor Joseph, stranger yet to God’s intent,
With doubts of jealous thoughts was sore oppressed
And, wrought with diverse fits of fear and love,
He neither can her free nor faulty prove.
Now sense, the wakeful spy of jealous mind,
By strong conjectures deemeth her defiled,
But love, in doom of things best loved blind,
Thinks rather sense deceived than her with child
Yet proofs so pregnant were that no pretence
Could cloak a thing so dear and plain to sense.
Then Joseph, daunted with a deadly wound,
Let loose the reins to undeserved grief.
His heart did throb, his eyes in tears were drowned,
His life a loss, death seemed his best relief.
The pleasing relish of his former love
In gallish thoughts to bitter taste doth prove.
One foot he often setteth forth of door
But t’other’s loath uncertain ways to tread.
He takes his fardel for his needful store,
He casts his Inn where first he means to bed.
But still ere he can frame his feet to go,
Love winneth time till all conclude in no.
Sometime, grief adding force, he doth depart.
He will, against his will, keep on his pace.
But straight remorse so racks his ruing heart,
That hasting thoughts yield to a pausing space;
Then mighty reasons press him to remain.
She whom he flies doth win him home again.
But when his thought, by sight of his abode,
Presents the sign of mis-esteemed shame,
Repenting every step that back he trod,
Tears drown the guides; the tongue, the feet doth blame.
Thus warring with himself a field he fights,
Where every wound upon the giver lights.
“And was my love,” quoth he, “so lightly prized?
Or was our sacred league so soon forgot?
Could vows be void, could virtues be despised?
Could such a spouse be stained with such a spot?”
O wretched Joseph that hast lived so long,
Of faithful love to reap so grievous wrong.
Could such a worm breed in so sweet a wood?
Could in so chaste demeanour lurk untruth?
Could vice lie hid where virtue’s image stood?
Where hoary sageness graced tender youth?
Where can affiance rest to rest secure?
In virtue’s fairest seat faith is not sure.
All proofs did promise hope, a pledge of grace,
Whose good might have repaid the deepest ill.
Sweet signs of purest thoughts in saintly face
Assured the eye of her unstained will.
Yet in this seeming lustre seem to lie
Such crimes for which the law condemns to die.
But Joseph’s word shall never work her woe:
“I wish her leave to live, not doom to die.
Though fortune mine, yet am I not her foe,
She to herself less loving is than I.
The most I will, the lest I can, is this,
Sith none may salve, to shun that is amiss.
Exile my home, the wilds shall be my walk,
Complaints my joy, my music mourning lays,
With pensive griefs in silence will I talk;
Sad thoughts shall be my guides in sorrow’s ways.
This course best suits the care of cureless mind,
That seeks to lose what most it joyed to find.
Like stocked tree whose branches all do fade,
Whose leaves do fall, and perished fruit decay,
Like herb that grows in cold and barren shade,
Where darkness drives all quick’ning heat away,
So must I die, cut from my root of joy,
And thrown in darkest shades of deep annoy.
But who can fly from that his heart doth feel?
What change of place can change implanted pain?
Removing moves no hardness from the steel.
Sick hearts that shift no fits, shift rooms in vain.
Where thought can see, what helps the closed eye?
Where heart pursues, what gains the foot to fly?
Yet still I tread a maze of doubtful end.
I go, I come, she draws, she drives away,
She wounds, she heals, she doth both mar and mend,
She makes me seek and shun, depart and stay.
She is a friend to love, a foe to loathe,
And in suspense I hang between them both.”
Notes and Reference:
A fardel is a package. Affiance is a binding marriage pledge. I have modernized the spelling and added punctuation. Previous poems by Robert Southwell are here and here.
Robert Southwell : Collected Poems. Edited by Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney. Manchester, UK: Fyfield Books, pp. 19-21.