Richard Crashaw’s 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 much of the work found in Delights of the Muses, the volume appended to and published with Steps 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 speechlike 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 for the 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 cheekeTwixt’s mother’s brests is gone to bed.Sweet choice (said I!) no way but soNot 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 repeated nouns are monosyllables—“die,” “birth,” “sun,” “flame,” “heart,” “eyes”), Crashaw betrays his early fondness for Latin in some...
(The entire section is 3094 words.)