Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1486
First published: 1646
Edition(s) used: “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds,” in Seventeenth-Century British Poetry, 1603-1660, edited by John P. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006
Subgenre(s): Devotions; lyric poetry; meditation and contemplation
Core issue(s): Celebration; Christmas; the Deity; illumination; Incarnation; love; revelation
Richard Crashaw is traditionally grouped with the “metaphysical poets” of seventeenth century Protestant England because of the “wit,” dramatic immediacy, intellectual energy, meditative concentration, and imaginative daring that he shares with such poets as John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Katherine Philips, and Andrew Marvell. His poetic achievement, however, is in several ways more compatible with the rich and sensuous baroque sensibilities fostered by continental Roman Catholicism than with the rigors of “Protestant poetics” nourished by the cultures of Puritanism and Anglicanism in England.
Crashaw was born in 1612 or 1613, in London, England. London at that time was beginning to seethe with political and religious controversies that would lead to the outbreak of civil war in 1642. Crashaw’s father was a passionately anti-Catholic Puritan minister. By the time Crashaw was fourteen, both his parents had died; he attended the Charterhouse, a fairly new English boarding school, and entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1631. In the growing conflict of the 1620’s and 1630’s between High Church Anglo-Catholicism and the scripturally based autonomous church movements associated with Puritanism, Pembroke was a bastion of High Church beliefs and practices. Crashaw completed his B.A. in 1636 and became a fellow at Peterhouse, another High Church college, where he received his M.A. in 1638, and spent several years teaching and writing. In 1643, he left Peterhouse, when Puritans stripped the High Church colleges of their Catholic practices, teachings, and personnel. In 1646, Crashaw was living in Paris, where he joined the circle of English political and religious refugees gathered around Henrietta Maria, the exiled queen of Charles I. Crashaw had by this time converted to Roman Catholicism and saw his work published in a volume of religious and secular lyrics, Steps to the Temple (1646) and Delights of the Muses (appended to and published with Steps to the Temple), which was revised and enlarged in 1648. Crashaw entertained some hopes for preferment in the Roman Catholic Church on the continent, but despite Henrietta Maria’s influence, he attained only a minor position as canon at the cathedral in Loreto, where he served until his death in 1649. His poetry was republished posthumously in Paris in 1652, with additions and revisions, as the volume Carmen Deo Nostro.
Crashaw’s poetry is inimitably exuberant, musical, quick in its development, inexhaustibly inventive, and full of imagistic surprises. Crashaw’s poems tend to be rhapsodic and kaleidoscopic rather than systematic or logically developed: they subject a single moment, scene, idea, or character to multiple angles of vision. They circle around their subject with brief explosive paradoxes and oxymorons, and rapidly shifting image combinations, creating a tone of high-pitched, joyful excitement as they evoke the elusiveness of the heightened, epiphanic experiences they are trying to express. No other English poet of his period joins concentration and seeming contradiction with the accelerating speed of Crashaw. Yet Crashaw’s lyrics are neither incoherent nor confusing. His expertise in epigrams gives his more expansive lyrics a witty and grounded solidity. He reiterates certain primary images and mixes sensory keys to create a sense of imagistic, intuitive, or emotive rather than logical unity. He disciplines and intensifies even his most seemingly spontaneous lyric outbursts by subjecting them to a rich musical formality. His declamatory musicality sets him in the company not only of the great poets of the period but also of the great composers of recitative and oratorio, like Claudio Monteverdi and Henry Purcell.
“In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds” announces its musical genre in its title, yet the “as” in the title indicates that this is a lyric representation of a shepherd’s hymn. Within the poem, there is an unfolding duet between the shepherds Thyrsis and Tityrus (standard shepherds’ names). There is also, however, a subtle implied duet and merging of voices between the witty, learned poet—with his full store of epigrams and paradoxes, who can reveal the Nativity as the focal point of nature and history—and the innocent shepherds as witnesses, whose pure adoration of the infant Christ, mediated to the reader by the poet, provides the poem with its tone of breathless immediacy, excitement, and wonder.
There are three major movements in this Christmas oratorio, which could be titled “Testimony” (lines 1-36), “Reflection” (lines 37-78), and “Dedication” (lines 79-108). In the first movement, the full chorus of shepherds gathers to describe the “blest sight” of the child whose brightness exceeds the natural light of the sun; their spokesmen Thyrsis and Tityrus then describe the miraculous paradoxes by which day appeared in the midst of nature’s darkness, and perfume and flowers issued from the fierce threat of winter’s breath. In the second part, Thyrsis and Tityrus alternate stanzas searching through all the orders of creation for habitation and comfort fit for the glory and majesty of their Creator, and finding the true abiding place for his meek humanity in the snowy warm breasts of his mother. In the third movement, the shepherds join in full chorus to welcome the divine infant and the profound changes in nature and society that issue from his birth. As their perspective widens and time begins moving forward toward spring, they make sacrificial pledges of themselves and hint thereby at the self-offering of the divine love that Christ reveals in his birth.
Crashaw’s hymn handles a set of conventional Christian images and tropes with witty originality. The poem is dominated by images of light and testimonies of transformed vision. Crashaw also rings changes upon central Christian tropes of Christ: as the king of peace and righteousness rather than of worldly might and vainglory. Christ is depicted as the “dread lamb,” whose sacrifice of love is the paradoxical form that God’s justice takes, and as the legendary phoenix, who rises to new life from the ashes of his self-immolation.
Crashaw’s “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds” celebrates several of the primary paradoxes and transformations of Christian faith: the light shining in the midst of the world’s darkness, the infinitely powerful God enfleshed as a vulnerable infant, the self-giving of love overcoming all worldly power—including the power of death. With its references to shepherds and their lives, the hymn invokes the classical tradition of pastoral, with its celebration of the power of poetry to heal the breach between man and nature, and to offer consolation in the face of mortality. Yet Crashaw transforms the natural tradition of classical pastoral to a form of revelation of Christian transcendence: the vagaries of nature and mortal time are changed by the timelessness, fullness, and deathlessness of a divine love that enters time, nature, and human understanding to release them forever from the grip of loss, confusion, and sorrow. The shepherds excitedly celebrate what they have seen, and yet the visual images are scarcely visible to “mortal sight”; with so much stress on vision, and so little provided in the way of sensory visual detail, the poem testifies to revelation, the power of God’s presence to awaken and redeem the human imagination.
Crashaw’s poetry frequently sensualizes God’s love for humanity and humanity’s longing for God in images of the nourishing power of Christ’s wounds and blood and, reciprocally, in the milk of the Virgin Mary, the tears of Mary Magdalene, and the ecstatic wounds of Saint Teresa. In the hymn, when Crashaw discreetly yet startlingly evokes the sensual pleasure, security, and nourishment that the holy infant enjoys in his mother’s protective nursing embrace, he renders in the most intimate terms possible the paradox of the Incarnation: Christ’s humanity and vulnerability, and the mutual and fully enfleshed nurturance that is the gift of faith.
Sources for Further Study
- Duerden, Richard Y., and William Shullenberger, eds. The Tradition of Metaphysical Poetry and Belief. Provo, Utah: Brigham University Press, 1999. Several essays in this multiauthor volume on metaphysical poetry clarify Crashaw’s poetics of hope and of sacrifice by comparison to other authors and spiritual traditions.
- Netzley, Ryan. “Oral Devotion: Eucharistic Theology and Richard Crashaw’s Religious Lyrics.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44, no. 3 (2002): 247-272. A study of the centrality of the Eucharist, with its promise of bodily and spiritual union between believer and Christ, to Crashaw’s poetics of embodiment.
- Warren, Austin. Richard Crashaw: A Study in Baroque Sensibility. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957. A groundbreaking and still essential comprehensive primer on Crashaw’s poetic techniques, images, and symbols, as well as the cultural and poetic influences on him.