(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The 1646 edition of Richard Crashaw’s Steps to the Temple, apparently edited by the anonymous author of the preface, also includes a section of secular poems called “The Delights of the Muses,” equivalent to another volume. The 1648 edition contains revisions of some of the originals and many new poems, including “The Flaming Heart,” a famous poem about Saint Teresa of Ávila in Spain and her mystical religious ecstasy. This discussion will focus on the sacred poems composing the first edition.

The central, unifying metaphor of the title was based on a collection of poems called The Temple (1633) by Welsh poet George Herbert. Crashaw’s modification of Herbert’s title invites comparison between the two poets; indeed, Crashaw included in his volume the poem “On Mr George Herbert’s Book entitled ’The Temple of Sacred Poems.’” In this poem, Crashaw poses as a donor of Herbert’s book to a lovely, pious woman. The poem tells the lady reader that she will, by reading the lines, kindle in herself the fire that lies in the words of the meditational poems. Unlocking the secrets of the poems will be like finding an angel and grasping its wings. This angel will transport the perceptive reader daily to heaven, where she can become acquainted with the glories that await her among the gentle souls residing there.

The simple eighteen-line poem, written in rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets, ends with a strange act of appropriation: Crashaw says that the poems in the book, as he gives them to the lady, actually belong to him rather than to Herbert, under whose name they appear. This paradox combines many of the tensions that appear throughout the poetry of Crashaw’s entire career. It merges the heavenly and the inspirational with the earthly and the physical. His earthly admiration of the lady, a kind of love, finds its high fulfillment in his homage to her spirit and his attempt to help it strive toward ultimate bliss. The paradox also allows Crashaw to place himself in a tradition of meditative poetry and to choose his own literary precursor.

Even though the subject matter of Herbert’s and Crashaw’s poems was similar, the two were well distinguished in their styles. Herbert’s faith was filled with daily drama and grounded in concrete, mundane experience. In a tone of intimacy, he spoke directly and honestly with his God, trying to discover God’s will. Crashaw’s poetry, at the other extreme, was lofty, elevated, and elaborate in diction and in situation.

Some of the difference may stem from religious influence. Although both were associated with Little Gidding, a High Church Anglican place of retreat, Herbert was famous as a country minister, having taken orders in the Church of England in 1630. Crashaw, while raised by a staunch Protestant father, was drawn to the ritual, color, and tradition of Roman Catholicism and converted, probably by 1645, after also having taken orders in the Church of England seven years earlier (1638). During his stays in Paris and Rome, after leaving Cambridge shortly before it was visited by Cromwellian anti-Royalist forces, Crashaw also became influenced by a continental and anti-Reformationist strain of thought and art. The qualities of Roman Catholic meaning and matter in his poetry and his tie to continental style mark Crashaw’s poetry as unique in England during this period.

The anonymous writer of the preface to the sacred poems of Crashaw indicates that they are the document of an extraordinary man. The title is apt, this writer maintains, because Crashaw lived his life literally and metaphorically on the steps to the temple. The poems are presented as a key to Crashaw’s own holy life and as a link whereby the reader might achieve a similar intensity of religious devotion. Crashaw is to lead the reader up the steps to the temple; his poems are to participate in the spirit of Scripture. They are to be as inspiring in their turn as the Psalms and other meditational matters that they translate or emulate.

Although Crashaw’s style is unique, he also synthesizes many of the poetic trends of the seventeenth century. At various times he is master equally of the plain style, the classical imitation, and the metaphysical mode, which he inherited from poets such as John Donne. Crashaw, like the metaphysical poets, employs the poem as a form of creation; within its lines,...

(The entire section is 1804 words.)