Although Crashaw was born into a staunchly Protestant family, he was deeply involved in the Laudian restoration at Cambridge, and when the Puritans took over the university, he fled in 1643, an action that may have helped drive him from the Anglican Church into the Roman Catholic Church. After a decade of religious tutelage at Cambridge, Crashaw was ripe for a further spiritual journey that eventually took him to Rome in 1646 where he worked for Cardinal Palotto. But a few short years later on a pilgrimage to Loreto, he contracted a fever and died.
Most of his poetry reflects his intense spirituality. Although some early poems were penned to the usual Renaissance mistress, by the time of his first book, Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber (1634), it was evident that Crashaw’s poetry concerned mostly the supernatural and humankind’s relation to it. He had a deep respect for the poetry of George HERBERT and titled his second book Steps to the Temple (1646) in homage to Herbert’s The Temple, but his poetry, aside from its religious themes, has little in common stylistically with Herbert’s crisp verses. He has sometimes been considered a link between Herbert and Henry VAUGHAN, but he has little more in common with the consummate mysticism of the Silurist poet than he does with the loyal Anglicanism of Herbert.
Crashaw has often been listed among the metaphysical poets, but he does not sound or read much like John DONNE or Andrew MARVELL: his lyrics are much more readily accessible than either of those two quintessential metaphysicals. On the other hand, he has never really been considered a Cavalier poet, yet his imagery is often lush, and he in fact borrowed erotic images from Thomas CAREW’s “A Rapture” for his own poem “On a prayer booke sent to Mrs. M. Richard” He is the only English 17th-c. poet to be called “baroque” because his poems tend to be filigreed with fancy images, sometimes to the point of absurdity. The poems on St. Teresa of Avila and Mary Magdalene are particularly suspect, those for Mary Magdalene employing endless variations on images of tears.
“The Flaming Heart” was inspired by the Bernini altarpiece in which a cherub aims an arrow at Teresa’s heart while she lounges backward in what has often been described as erotic bliss. Although many of his poems are meditative in nature, many have a highly dramatic flavor as well: for example, “Sospetto d’Herode” is almost a play as it follows the story of Herod and the slaughter of the Innocents. Although Crashaw died young, his impact on the development of religious verse in England, though second to Herbert’s, has never been questioned.
After his death, another volume of his poems was published under the title Carmen Deo Nostro (1652). Included in the book is the beautiful “Hymn in the Holy Nativity,” which compares favorably to John MILTON’s “Nativity Ode.” “Hymn in the Glorious Epiphanie” is an attack on religious idols and ends with a meditation on the Crucifixion. The simple devotion that ripples beneath most of his poetry indicates a mind that was riveted on his own faith and demonstrates a religious tenacity that rivaled the Puritanical fanaticism that he so disliked. Yet the sensuousness of his poetry is anything but Puritan, and it is the quality of his imagery that continues to endear him to modern readers. He understood how to capture pictures in words, and if his rhetoric often seems overblown, readers delight in his obvious ability to relay feelings through poem after poem.
Bibliography Roberts, J. R., ed., New Perspectives on the Life and Art of R. C. (1990); Wallerstein, R. C., R. C. (1935); Warren, A., R. C. (1939)
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