“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 by interpreting both images. Now, the body of humanity is implicated in observing and feeling and reading the spectacle along with the narrator. He addresses them, accepting and then expanding on both metaphorical readings of the wounds. Behold, he cajoles them, a wound that appears to be a mouth. The ragged edges of the wound transform it once again, from a mouth to a rose. Roses are standard symbols and metaphors, especially in love poems, yet here the comparison is scandalous, almost perverse. That God should sacrifice his son so that humans may find poetry is too extravagant a cost. Similarly, those who perceive the wounds as eyes find the tears (the blood of Christ, which will ultimately save humankind) to be wasteful weeping: the ultimate loss.
In the third stanza, the narrator projects himself out of his time and place to imagine others, the worshipful, who have similarly meditated before the image. Moving from the horror of the real wounds to the scandal of the metaphors that transform them, he now finds a redemption of the pain in the salvation that the wounds ultimately bring. Ironically, the steadfast worshipers have offered their kisses and their tears to the image, in empathy for the suffering that they perceive there. In the same way that Christ’s wounds (as eyes and mouths) offered up the saving blood for humanity, so do the tears and kisses (from the eyes and mouths) of the worshipers redeem the poem and its metaphors from horror and scandal. There is a reciprocal relationship between Christ and his flock that hinges on metaphor and is revealed here, fittingly, in the center of the poem.
The imagination of the narrator begins to run wild in stanza 4. As he stares at the image...
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of the foot, which has received the kisses and tears of the devout, he visualizes the wounds again as mouths and eyes, almost as if they had been placed there by the worshipful. This image may indicate the guilt of all humankind, which entailed the sacrifice of Christ. The mouths and eyes of the foot will repay the devotion of the worshipers with its own gems.
The last stanza reveals the victory of the poem, involving both the theme and the poetic figures. This victory is heightened by the altered meter of the lines: Here, the second and fourth lines are in trimeter rather than tetrameter, a foot short of what the reader has been led to expect. A tear may resemble a pearl and a drop of blood may resemble a ruby—human faith is the less-valuable form of homage (human tears, or pearls), which Christ exchanges for the more-valuable gem (his blood, or rubies) that grants forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to those who believe.
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.