The Poetry of Crashaw Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Crashaw

Critical Evaluation

The highly emotional, ornate, baroque style that characterized the painting, sculpture, and some of the poetry of seventeenth century France and Italy had little influence on most English creative artists, but the poet Richard Crashaw was a notable exception. Writing about the same time that Suckling, Lovelace, and Carew were celebrating the beauty of ladies of the court in light, polished, witty verses, Crashaw attempted to express in his poetry his impression of the glories of the Christian faith. Unlike the religious poems of Donne and Herbert, which give intellectual, highly personal accounts of the poets’ struggles for faith in language and rhythms close to ordinary speech, Crashaw’s works are generally diffuse, impassioned reflections on the life of Christ and the symbols of the Christian church. Whatever problems he may have encountered in moving from the Puritan faith of his clergyman father to the Roman Catholicism he adopted near the end of his life are subordinated to the almost mystical fervor of his devotional spirit.

The dominant tone of Crashaw’s poetry is rhapsodic; he makes frequent use of hyperbole, personification, and direct address to sustain his high emotional pitch. Typical are the opening lines of his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm:

Happy me! o happy sheep!Whom my God vouchsafes to keep;Even my God, even he it isThat points me to these ways of bliss;

Still more ecstatic is the hymn “To the Name above Every Name, the Name of Jesus,” in which the poet calls on his soul to unite the whole universe in singing the praises of Christ:

I sing the Name which None can sayBut touch’t with an interiour Ray:The Name of our New Peace; ourGood:Our Bliss: and Supernaturall Blood:The Name of All our Lives and Loves.

One of Crashaw’s most powerful methods of conveying the intensity of his religious feeling is his use of erotic language, a device he may have learned from Donne. Near the end of “The Flaming Heart,” written, the poet explains, “upon the book and picture of the seraphical Saint Teresa,” Crashaw addresses the saint, begging her to break into his heart “and take away from me myself and sin”:

O thou undaunted daughter of desires!By all thy dower of Lights and Fires;By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;By all thy lives and deaths of love;By thy large draughts of intellectualday,And by thy thirsts of love more largethan they;By all thy brim-filled Bowls of fiercedesire;By thy last Morning’s draught of liquidfire;By the full kingdom of that final kissThat seiz’d thy parting Soul, and seal’dthee his . . .By all of Him we have in Thee;Leave nothing of my Self in me.

Even more striking for its use of the vocabulary of romance is the hymn “In the Glorious Assumption of our Blessed Lady,” where the Holy Spirit calls Mary to Him:

Hark, how the dear immortal doveSighs to his silver mate rise up, my love!Rise up, my fair, my spotless one!The winter’s past, the rain is gone.The spring is come, the flowers ap-pearNo sweets, but thou, are wanting here.

Certain words and images occur again and again in Crashaw’s works. He seems to have been almost obsessed with blood, tears, milk, gold, silver, pearls, diamonds, and stars, and he forms surprising associations between images that seem on the surface quite dissimilar. In one of his most famous and most extravagant poems, “The Weeper,” he addresses the tears of Mary Magdalene:

Upwards thou dost weep;Heaven’s bosom drinks the gentlestream.Where th’ milky rivers creep,Thine floates above; and is thecream.Waters above the Heavens, what theybe,We’are taught best by thy Tears andthee.

Through the thirty-odd stanzas of the poem these tears are described as the proudest pearls of Sorrow,...

(The entire section is 2161 words.)