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Ep. 69—Poetry of the English Martyrs—Benedict Whalen

By Catholic Culture Podcast ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 05, 2020 | In The Catholic Culture Podcast

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In 1581, a young Englishman named Henry Walpole attended the execution of the Jesuit Edmund Campion. As Campion was hung, drawn and quartered, Walpole stood close enough to be spattered with his holy blood. Though Campion’s fame in England was already great, Walpole would amplify it further with a splendid, lengthy poem, which became enormously popular among English Catholics—so popular that the man who printed the book had his ears cut off as punishment.

In his poem Walpole wrote:
We cannot fear a mortal torment, we,
This martyr’s blood hath moistened all our hearts,
Whose parted quarters when we chance to see
We learn to play the constant Christian’s parts.

This was more than wordplay: Two years after Campion’s death, Walpole became a priest, and was himself hung for the faith in 1595.

St. Henry Walpole was not the only martyr who wrote poems. The 16th and 17th centuries produced a number of men whose courageous faith was accompanied by prodigious learning and literary talent. St. Thomas More wrote poems while languishing in the Tower of London. Another Jesuit martyr, St. Robert Southwell, powerfully influenced the later movement of “metaphysical poetry”, including the greatest Protestant poets of succeeding centuries—such as George Herbert and John Donne.

The poetry of the English martyrs has been collected in an anthology called Lyra Martyrum. Benedict Whalen, the editor of the second edition, joins Thomas to discuss these authors, with Catholic Culture Audiobooks’ James T. Majewski performing several of their works.


[2:08] The historical/literary/educational circumstances that gave us a period of martyr-poets

[7:23] Their influence as poets in the succeeding centuries

[10:26] St. Robert Southwell’s Prefatory Epistle on the purpose of poetry

[12:58] All the poets in the first edition of the anthology have since been beatified or canonized

[14:29] The martyrdoms of the Jesuit Saints Edmund Campion and Henry Walpole

[17:43] St. Henry Walpole, “Upon the Martyrdom of M. Edmund Campion”

[30:23] The tradition of meditating on the Four Last Things

[33:08] St. Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, “Meditation upon Heaven”

[37:43] St. Thomas More’s early poems written for courtly occasions

[40:11] More’s poems written in the Tower of London: “Lewis the Lost Lover” and “Davy the Dicer”

[44:17] The theme of Fortune in medieval and Renaissance philosophy and poetry

[47:12] The influence of Latin classics on English verse

[49:16] More’s influence on English prose

[51:29] The life and work of St. Robert Southwell

[54:36] St. Robert Southwell, “The Burning Babe”

[59:39] “A Child My Choice”

[1:05:27] Southwell’s conceptual and sonic density: excerpts from “The Nativity of Christ” and “Look Home”

[1:09:13] “I Die Alive”

[1:12:52] “Mary Magdalen’s Complaint at Christ’s Death”

[1:16:30] The remarkable story of St. Robert Southwell’s martyrdom

[1:26:10] The appendix of this edition of Lyra Martyrum


Lyra Martyrum

Benedict Whalen

Catholic Culture Audiobooks

Theme music: “Franciscan Eyes”, written and performed by Thomas Mirus. Download the Catholic Culture Podcast soundtrack.

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Thomas V. Mirus - Jul. 27, 2020 5:25 PM ET USA

    Thanks for the kind note! May I suggest you check out Catholic Culture Audiobooks if you like James's reading?

  • Posted by: timmccmd3591 - Jul. 26, 2020 11:55 PM ET USA

    I only recently found this particular podcast...Wow! Have enjoyed Way of the Fathers and others, but this one is truly spectacular. Highlights how deep, broad, beautiful the heritage we have as Catholics. And highlights what Faith sometimes demands. I have downloaded 1850's version of Southwell's poems to read (90+ poems). Many are prayers as much as poetry! Good interview (great guest!). And what a voice James has!