Analysis of Richard Crashaw’s Poems

Richard Crashaw’s (1613 – 1649) poetry may be divided into three groups of unequal significance for the scholar: the early epigrams, the secular poetry, and the religious poetry. The early epigrams and translations are studied, meticulous, and often occasional. The 178 Latin epigrams in Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber show the influence of Martial and other classical writers. Crashaw also uses biblical motifs, particularly for his several English epigrams, displaying in his treatment of these themes an example of the close-reading that will underlie his later work.

As a book of poetry, these early pieces are significant for the discipline they reveal and for their fascination with wordplay—puns, quips, repetitions, conceits—which Crashaw will later elevate to such exuberance. They are finger exercises, and if they lack the genius of John Milton’s college ventures, they nevertheless suggest later greatness.

Delights of the Muses

Crashaw’s second body of verse, the secular or nonsacred poetry, comprises muchof the work found in Delights of the Muses, the volume appended to and published withSteps to the Temple. In that volume, Crashaw displays the Donnean Metaphysical, writing poems with titles such as “Wishes. To His (Supposed) Mistress,” “A Picture Sent to a Friend,” “Venus Putting on Mars His Armor,” and “Loves Horoscope.” Witty, polished, urbane, these poems show an accomplished and sophisticated writer delighting in the possibilities of English poetry. Intensely visual, these poems often select a single image and elaborate it in a manner reminiscent of the earlier emblem tradition. The classical tradition is still strong but the metrics are clearly English.

Although the poems in Delights of the Muses are often Donne-like in their wit, there is a certain reticence to them. The robust speaker of Donne’s songs and sonnets is absent in Crashaw; there is relatively little use of the personal pronoun and none of the speech-like abruptness that makes so many of Donne’s poems memorable. The meter is usually highly regular, most often iambic tetrameter or pentameter, and the cadences are smooth. There is an unsubstantiated tradition that Crashaw was a trained musician; these poems would support that claim.From time to time, there is a baffling half-revelation, for example in the two line “On Marriage,” when the speaker declares that he would “be married, but I’d have no wife,/ I would be married to the single life.” Whether this is witty posturing, cynical disclaimer,or an honest account of his own state (Crashaw never married), the reader cannot tell.

Crashaw’s work would appear in anthologies even if he had written only the secular poetry, but his name would definitely be in smaller type. The poet himself spent far less effort in revising these secular poems, suggesting that he too considered them of secondary importance.

Steps to the Temple and Carmen Deo Nostro

Turning to Crashaw’s major works, those rich poems that he wrote and revised forthe collections that would become Steps to the Temple and Carmen Deo Nostro, one is confronted with a lavish, even bewildering, highly sensuous, celebration of the Christianity that so fired the poet. If Donne argues with God in his Holy Sonnets and Herbert prays through The Temple, then Crashaw contemplates and exclaims. Apparently gifted with mystical experiences even in the midst of his English tradition, Crashaw’s mode of prayer is much more akin to that of Teresa of Ávila than to the Book of Common Prayer.

Like Teresa, who said that she could meditate for hours on the opening two words of the Lord’s Prayer, Crashaw, confronted by the mysteries of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, meditates, celebrates, sorrows, refines, ponders, sees. Faced with mystery, he expresses it in paradox and strains to reconcile the opposites. Christianity does, after all,continually join flesh and spirit, God and humanity, justice and mercy, life and death. Crashaw’s poetry does the same: It reveals rather than persuades. Unlike Henry Vaughan and especially Thomas Traherne, whose religious poetry is almost unflaggingly optimistic, Crashaw focuses on both the joys and sufferings of Christianity and more on the sufferings of Christ and the Virgin Mary, although he involves himself in the joyous mysteries of Christianity as well.

In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord

“In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord,” one of Crashaw’s best known, most tightly written poems, makes a most appropriate introduction to the poet. Starting with the paradox of the revelation of Christ’s birth to humble shepherds, Crashaw structures his hymn in a series of dualities and paradoxes: “Loves noone” meets “Natures night,” frost is replaced by flowers, a tiny manger provides a bed for “this huge birth” of God who becomes man. The dualities in the poem are underscored by the shepherds themselves,classically named Tityrus and Thursis, who alternate verses and sing the chorus together.

The contrasts lead to the central question of the hymn, where to find a “fit” bed for the infant Jesus. When the “whitest sheets of snow” prove pure but too cold and the“rosie fleece” of angels’ wings is warm but cannot “passe for pure,” the shepherds return to the nativity scene to discover that the Christ child has vividly and dramatically reached his own solution:

See see, how soone his new bloom’d cheeke
Twixt’s mother’s brests is gone to bed.
Sweet choice (said I!) no way but so
Not to lye cold, yet sleep in snow.

The paradox is resolved in the person of the Virgin Mother, Mary; the “I” of the shepherds becomes the “we” of all the faithful; the celebration of “Eternitie shut in a span/Summer in winter, day in night,/ Heaven in Earth and god in man” ends in a full chorus,followed by an anthem of liturgical joy.

Several traits elevate this poem well above the countless conventional, albeit sincere, Nativity poems of this period. The central image is vivid and personal; the Christ child is presented not as king but as nursing infant. Crashaw brilliantly takes the biblical motif of the Son of man, who has no place to lay his head, and transforms it into image.The poem moves gracefully from opening question to resolution, celebrating that resolution and concluding with the offering: “at last . . . our selves become our owne best sacrifice.” It is a poem of liturgical color: The images of white and gold that weave through the stanzas are reminiscent of the vestments worn for the Christmas liturgy as well as the sunrise of Christmas Day.

One of Crashaw’s simpler poems because of its traditional subject matter, “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord” exemplifies the gifts of the poet. Crashaw is a worker with color: gold and silver, red and crimson and scarlet, and blinding white fill the poems along with modifiers such as “bright,” “rosy,” “radiant,” and a score of others. The poet is highly conscious of textures and surfaces, forever describing his images as “soft,” “rough,” “slippery.” Predominantly Anglo Saxon in his diction (his most repeatednouns are monosyllables—“die,” “birth,” “sun,” “flame,” “heart,” “eyes”), Crashawbetrays his early fondness for Latin in some of his favorite adjectives: “immortal,” “triumphant,” “illustrious,” and “supernatural.” He alliterates constantly, playing withvowel and consonant sounds to achieve unity of tone as well as musical qualities.


Sainte Mary Magdalen

Ironically, Crashaw’s most characteristic gifts as a poet, particularly his enthusiasm for the refined and elaborate image, are responsible for some of his most criticized efforts.Of these, the most famous is “Sainte Mary Magdalen: Or, The Weeper,” a long poem commemorating the legend of Mary Magdalene, the sinner forgiven by Jesus, who, according to tradition, wept tears of repentance for many years. The motif is a beloved one in the seventeenth century; poems celebrating (and recommending) tears abound, often with Mary Magdalene, Saint Peter, or another grieving Christian as the focal point. Crashaw’s poem is really not about Mary Magdalene at all; rather it is about the tears themselves, which, after falling from Mary Magdalene’s eyes, follow a circuitous, thirty seven stanza route, develop a speech of their own, and finally go up to Heaven to meet “a worthy object,Our Lords Feet.” In between his opening salutation of Magdalene’s eyes (“Ever bubling things! Thawing crystall! Snowy hills!”) and the final image of Jesus, Crashaw scatters images and conceits with such abandon as to bewilder the unwary. Some of these conceits are richly apt: Magdalene is “pretious prodigall! Faire spendthrift of thy self!” Others (and there are many more of these) are extravagant, incredible, even ludicrous:

And now where e’re he strayes
. . . . . . . . . .  .
He’s follow’d by two faithfull fountaines,
Two walking Bathes; two weeping motions;
Portable and compendious Oceans.

“Sainte Mary Magdalen” has been cited as the prime example of all that is bad, even bathetic, in Crashaw, and surely today’s reader, accustomed to a leaner poetic style and certainly to a less visible religious expression, confronts major problems. These can be partially alleviated, however, with at least some consideration of the traditions out of which Crashaw is writing. He is, in a sense, doing in “Sainte Mary Magdalen” what Teresa of Ávila is doing with the Lord’s Prayer: He is taking a single image and pondering it at length, refining and embroidering and elaborating the object of his meditation until it reaches a conclusion.

Crashaw is also influenced by the Christian tradition of litanies. A litany is a long series of short prayers, each one a single phrase or epithet, often recited by a priest with responses (“pray for us” or “have mercy on us”) from the congregation. A litany does what the poem does: It presents aspect after aspect of the holy person or mystery so that the faithful may, in some sense, see. The petitions of a litany are not related to one another but to the person or mystery they are celebrating: The Virgin Mary, for example, is called Ark of the Covenant, Morning Star, Mystical Rose, Tower of Ivory, not because these phrases have any relationship to one another, but because they are figures or conceits of her. Depending on one’s scriptural background or perhaps spiritual disposition,some phrases suggest more devotion than others.

Much has been said of Crashaw’s affinities with the movement in art called Baroque—that richly decorative aesthetic that suggests tension, opposites pulling at each other, extravagant gestures and ornate detail, and that somehow connotes a sense of unworldliness or otherness. “The Weeper,” in its maze of images and conceits, suggests that it contains a significant truth that readers cannot follow but at which they can only guess. The poem is perhaps less baroque than some of Crashaw’s other works, but it hasthat same energy, tension, and movement.

Finally, one might consider the fact that the poem celebrates Mary Magdalene, who wept repeatedly, even for years. The poem, too, celebrates repeatedly, with a focus on image after image, indeed perhaps doing the very thing it celebrates. Like Mary Magdalene, the poem reverences the Lord again and again. Read in this sense, “Sainte Mary Magdalen” may well be a hieroglyph, the term used by Joseph Summers to describe George Herbert’s poetry (George Herbert: His Religion and Art, 1954). All the above is not intended as a defense of “Sainte Mary Magdalen” so much as an attempt to view Crashaw in his contexts. Like many of the mystics, he has little need for discursive structure, preferring instead the intuitive, associative mode for communicating his experiences. If some images are banal, they are still a part of his contemplation and they stay in the poem. It is an unfamiliar aesthetic but not one without some validity.It is worth noting that nearly all Crashaw’s numerous revisions of his poetry are toward length; he rarely discarded and never shortened.

Saint Teresa Poems

As a Roman Catholic, Crashaw was more free than his Church of England contemporaries to consider the lives of the saints. Although the biblical Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary were appropriate for the devotions of at least High Church Anglicans,saints such as Teresa of Ávila were less so, even though Teresa’s works had appeared in English as early as 1611 and would surely have been familiar to devout readers. It is not known whether Crashaw possessed a copy of Teresa’s classic El castillo interior: O, Tratado de las moradas (wr. 1577, pb. 1588; The Interior Castle, 1852); if he did, and if he preached against it, there is an intriguing poetic justice in his son’s selection of Teresa for his richest poems. The two Saint Teresa poems rank among Crashaw’s finest.

The poems contrast as well as match; “A Hymn to the Name and Honor of the Admirable Saint Teresa” is a legend or story made into a lesson, whereas “The Flaming Heart” is a meditation on an image, possibly the painting by the Antwerp artist Gerhard Seghers, or perhaps the more famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini statue in the Coronaro Chapel, Saint Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Crashaw could have seen either representation,and he may well have seen both.

“A Hymn to the Name and Honor of the Admirable Saint Teresa” begins with thestory of the child Teresa, who, wanting martyrdom and heaven for her faith, persuades her little brother to go off with her in search of the Moors, who will, she hopes, put them to death. The poet, meditating on the greatness of heart in the six year old Teresa, is both witty and moving when he breaks in, “Sweet, not so fast!” A richer, more demanding martyrdom awaits the adult Teresa; she will be called to the contemplative life, reform the Carmelite order, write magnificent works, and give herself totally to the love of God. Dying to the self in the most ancient tradition, she will indeed be a spiritual martyr. The poem combines, in the richest Metaphysical tradition, intellect and emotion, tough demands and profoundly intuitive responses. Teresa is not free to choose her martyrdom any more than were the first Christians; she can only respond to the choice that God makes for her.

In the poem, Crashaw is working in the best tradition of Anglican preaching as well aswith Roman Catholic sensitivity. He begins with a story, an exemplum, good clear narrative, aphorisms (“Tis Love, not years nor limbs, that can/ Make the Martyr, or the man”), vivid drama, and a totally believable picture of the child Teresa and her ardent love of God. The regular tetrameter lines with their aabb rhymes move the story gracefully, even inevitably, along. Then, with “not so fast,” the poet moves into a new vein altogether, summoning back Teresa—and the reader—to contemplate what giving oneself to God really means. The poetry moves from narrative to lyrical, intuitive expression and is filled with images, exclamations, and apostrophes. Instead of martyrdom as a child, Teresa will face numerous mystical deaths, which will prepare her forthe final death that brings total union with the Lord; these mystical deaths “Shall all atlast dye into one,/ And melt thy soules sweet mansion.” The diction becomes more andmore simple as the concepts underneath the poetry become increasingly mystical. Thepoem concludes in a dazzling combination of Anglican neatness (“decorum”) and Roman Catholic transcendence: The one who wishes to see Jesus “must learne in life to dye like Thee.” The poem is simultaneously a meditation on a holy life and a lyrical celebration of one who was chosen by God to live totally for him. The women in Crashaw’s poetry, whether the Virgin Mary, Magdalene, Teresa, or even that “not impossible she” of the poem “Wishes. To His (Supposed) Mistress,” are all great souled, larger than life, intensely vivid, and visual. Later, Crashaw would write “An Apologie” for the hymn as“having been writt when the author was yet among the protestantes”; one wonderswhether its discursive, even preachy, tone is a manifestation of this state of mind.Surely, the poem needs no “apologie.”

In the second Teresa poem, “The Flaming Heart,” Crashaw keeps his tetrameterrhymed couplets but adopts a totally different stance, moving from storywithlesson tocontemplation. The thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas defines contemplation as simultaneously knowing and loving one of the divine mysteries, and the poem illustrates that definition. The speaker is gazing at a picture or statue of Teresa in whichshe is visited by a seraphim, a celestial being, who, holding a burning dart, prepares totransfix the saint. The scene is taken from Teresa’s own journal account of her divinerevelations and translates the momentary interior apprehension into external narration. Teresa’s language is explicitly sexual; the cherub with the dart, the piercing, the painfollowed by ecstatic joy, all these are a part of that long tradition that uses the languageof physical love for God’s encounters with his people. It is the language of Donne’sHoly Sonnets. Catholic artists, directed by the Council of Trent to make the mysteries offaith more vivid for believers, are drawn to this incident; it is not surprising that thenewly converted Crashaw, already enamored of image and mystery, would be drawn tothe story of Teresa, another “not impossible she.”

“The Flaming Heart” welcomes “you that come as friends” almost as though thereaders are pilgrims to the church where the image is displayed. The faithful viewersare, however, immediately corrected by the wit of the speaker; although “they say” thatone figure is the seraphim and the other is Teresa, the speaker assumes the role of correcting guide, asking, “be ruled by me.” The figures must be reversed; the saint is theseraphim.

With that flashing insight, “Read HIM for her and her for him,” the poet moves intothe entire burden of the long poem, constantly juxtaposing Teresa and the seraph, celebrating her angelic virtues and total love of God, casting the seraph in the role of a “rivalled lover” who needs to veil his face, singing praise of the “flaming heart” of Teresathat is so afire with love. The couplets race in their eagerness to show this instant, moving from abstract to concrete, from Teresa to the seraph. The colors are rich here, crimson, golden, and fiery; the sense of pain becoming joy is almost tangible; the transcendence of the moment breaks out of the visual representation as the speaker also movesout of time and space and into the world of mystical prayer. The closing lines, perhapsCrashaw’s most intense and most often cited, are litany, prayer, celebration, vision.

Bertonasco, Marc F.Crashaw and the Baroque. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1971.
Cefalu, Paul. English Renaissance Literature and Contemporary Theory: Sublime Objects of Theology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Cousins, Anthony D. The Catholic Religious Poets from Southwell to Crashaw: A Critical History. London: Sheed & Ward, 1991.
Healy, Thomas F. Richard Crashaw. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986.
LeVay, John. “Crashaw’s ‘Wishes to His (Supposed) Mistresse.’”Explicator50, no. 4 (Summer, 1992): 205.
Mintz, Susannah B. “The Crashavian Mother.”Studies in English Literature39, no. 1(Winter, 1999): 111129.
Parrish, Paul A. Richard Crashaw. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Sabine, Maureen.Feminine Engendered Faith: The Poetry of John Donne and Richard Crashaw. London: Macmillan, 1992.
Young, R. V. Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth Century Poetry. Rochester, N.Y.:D. S. Brewer, 2000.
_______.Richard Crashaw and the Spanish Golden Age. New Haven, Conn.: YaleUniversity Press, 1982.

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