On the Wounds of Our Crucified Lord Analysis

Richard Crashaw

The Poem

“On the Wounds of Our Crucified Lord” is a twenty-line poem divided into five stanzas of four lines each. The meter is predominantly iambic tetrameter, and the rhyme scheme is abab. Richard Crashaw’s title suggests that the narrator is viewing a painting or a sculpture depicting Christ either on the cross or at the moment when his body has been lowered from the cross, a standard subject of Renaissance artists. Such images were often placed in alcoves or recesses in churches as objects for meditation; it is such a meditative process that the poem traces.

The narrator of the poem begins with an apostrophe, or direct address of an inanimate object. As his eyes scan the painting or sculpture, they focus on the bleeding wounds of Jesus caused by the nails pounded through his hands and feet at Crucifixion and by the torture of the crown of thorns and the spear wounds inflicted while he was on the cross. The sight of the wounds moves the speaker, especially in their paradoxical appearance of life (“wakefull wounds”) on a corpse.

At first, he simply exclaims over their horror; then, he tries to find a suitable descriptive analogy for their existence. The comparisons he uses involve, appropriately, body parts: mouths and eyes. The rest of the poem draws out an elaborate comparison of wounds/mouths/eyes that, because it is strange, farfetched, and extended throughout the poem until its resolution in the final stanza, might be called a metaphysical conceit. The last line of the first stanza indicates how involved each watcher becomes in the spectacle of the crucifixion. Even though the wounds are in actuality neither mouths nor eyes, the community of observers, which includes all humankind, must apply the transformative metaphorical process to a sight too horrible to bear realistically.

The second stanza continues the metaphysical conceit...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Forms and Devices

The poem’s technique is difficult to separate from the actual meanings and impact of the poem because they are so skillfully intertwined. The poem contains a baroque excess of emotion and an intense concentration on the two major tropes: mouths and eyes. Because the poet employs only these two figures, he must extend their comparisons and interrelate them. The simultaneous concentration and expansion, along with the ultimate resolution of paradoxes within the poem, renders the center of the poem a metaphysical conceit.

The comparison of wounds to mouths and eyes is not a typical one. It contains within it many suggestions that relate to the theme; for example, during Communion mouths accept the wine and wafer, which are the symbolic blood and body of Christ. The act of Communion re-creates and both laments and celebrates the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of humankind, which actually, in the poem, brings the worshipers to the time and the scene of the Crucifixion. It is kept constantly alive by human belief and devoutness and by its continued power to save.

The poem works toward a reconciliation of the oppositions inherent in the metaphysical conceit. The eyes that offer the tears (pearls) for Christ’s suffering will be rewarded with the blood (rubies) of salvation. The major principle is one of exchange, yet the use of the image of a contract is not sacrilegious. Typically, God lends life to people with an implicit contract, which they then must fulfill by giving good account of that life on Judgment Day. This poem suggests the miracle of the God-human relationship: If humans give a good account, then they will receive the ultimate exchange—eternal life for temporal life, perfection, and a release from a fallen world given over to sin.

The contemporary reader must avoid modern preconceptions regarding taste in poetic language. The comic effect of a meter of iambic tetrameter rather than pentameter, which is usually reserved for serious subject matter, combines with an excess of explicitness for what seems a sordid focus that makes the reader want to laugh or to avoid such a poem. Crashaw, however, uses such excess and relentless focus to render the miracle of salvation more strongly.