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...
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