The Poets' Chantry/Richard Crashaw
Amazing as is the fecundity of Nature—which sets an orchid beckoning to us from the dry bark of a fallen tree, or the delicate edelweiss amid the silent Alpine summits—History has equal phenomena. For History, too, has blossomed "in purple and red" down many a stony highway, up many a forgotten and thorn-choked by-path. One of these gracious miracles has been the persistence of the Catholic note in English poetry, with all the powers of this world uniting to drown and silence it. One can scarcely conjure up a less promising soil for things Catholic than England of the late sixteenth and middle seventeenth centuries; yet it is a sober fact that the most intensely religious poets of both these eras were of the Old Faith. The latter part of Elizabeth's reign was so barren in devotional poetry that the palm goes quite unhesitatingly to the martyred Robert Southwell; and his successor's claim, although on more disputed ground, is not less assured.
For Richard Crashaw, if, possibly, less of an apostle than Father Southwell, was even more of a poet—so deeply and transcendently a poet that, in his own field, he need fear comparison with no English lyrist, save perhaps only one, before or since. Yet from a strange and troublous background his picture stands out. On one side was the Established Church; recognised as so much the bulwark of conservative English policies that Charles I. rose up, when about to receive the sacrament from Archbishop Usher, to declare publicly his intention of maintaining "the true reformed Protestant religion as it stood in its beauty in the happy days of Queen Elizabeth." On the other hand was Puritanism—a tremendous force in national affairs, a leaven of good and of evil through every class of English society. Both sides could point to their representative poets: good poets for the Establishment, one great poet for the Dissenters; all of whom the world has remembered. But it is not for the fervour and intensity of their religious emotion that the world remembers Milton, or Cowley, or even Herbert. And yet the fire of sincerest devotional poetry did burn on through this somewhat frigid time, tended with all devotion by its gentle high-priest; nor did the light and warmth of it fail to guide Crashaw back to its true altar-source, the Catholic faith.
Students of heredity may find the usual discrepancies in the poet's story. His father, William Crashaw, was a clergyman and scholar of pronounced Puritan tendencies; very active in the production of "Romish Forgeries and Falsifications," and Anti-Jesuit treatises in general. His imagination ran also into the fields of poetry; his most interesting work (to us) being a "Complaint or Dialogue betwixt the Soule and Body of a damned man. Supposed to be written by St. Bernard." These literary labours do not seem, however, to have brought much remuneration, for we find Queen Elizabeth once proposing the elder Crashaw for a Cambridge fellowship, having learned of his "povertie and yet otherwise good qualities." Richard was born in London in the year 1612-13; and one of the pathetic incidents of his life is its almost entire lack of a mother's understanding love. Just when she died is not known—nor, in fact, who she was; but, as early as 1620, Archbishop Usher preached the funeral sermon over William Crashaw's second wife, praising her, one is happy to read, for "her sin-gular motherly affection to the child of her predecessor." Of the subsequent life in this austere Puritan home few details have come down; we know that Richard was educated at the Charter-house on the nomination of two nobles, friends of his father; and that the latter died in 1626. But for the most part his boyhood is a blank.
It is at Cambridge University, where Crashaw entered in 1631, that the first clear light is thrown upon his life. The loneliness of his youth was over at last; and here, in the more friendly High Church atmosphere, among friends and tutors alike congenial, the poet's nature blossomed out like a flower in the sunshine. The death of two fellow-students called from him a number of graceful laments, and he contributed several occasional poems in Latin to the University collections—a significant but scarcely phenomenal achievement for the undergraduate of those days.
In 1634, probably his twenty-first or twenty-second year, something more notable occurred: the University Press published (anonymously) his remarkable Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber, containing nearly two hundred Latin epigrams, including the oft-quoted and ever-memorable one upon the miracle at Cana:
Nympha pudica Deum vidit et erubit;
It was probably in early youth, also, that Crashaw composed those charming "Wishes to his (supposed) Mistress":
Who e'er she be,
That not impossible she
That shall command my heart and me;
Where e'er she lye,
Lock't up from mortal eye,
In shady leaves of destiny:
for the ascetic turn of his mind soon banished even the supposition of an earthly sweetheart. Our poet's whole life was a romance, but one looks in vain for any recorded love-story.
In 1636, the young man passed to Peterhouse, and we must thank the anonymous editor of his first poems for many valuable details of his life there. "He was excellent," it seems, "in five languages (besides his mother-tongue), Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish; the two last whereof were his own acquisition." Among Crashaw's other accomplishments, "as well pious as harmless," he mentions music, drawing, and graving; and makes comments upon his "rare moderation in diet." The poet's religious life during these years seems to have been almost monastic. Once again let us turn to the editor's picturesque words: "In the temple of God, under his wing, he led his life in St. Mary's Church, near St. Peter's College; there he lodged under Tertullian's roof of angels; there he made his nest more gladly than David's swallow near the House of God; where, like a primitive saint, he offered more prayers in the night than others usually offer in the day." There was very little of earth in this life at Peterhouse; but his poems—many of them composed in the quiet chapel—show how much of Heaven. Lines like these speak for themselves:
Each of us his lamb will bring,
Each his pair of silver doves;
Till burnt at last in fire of Thy fair eyes,
Ourselves become our own best sacrifice.
A subsequent editor (the Rev. George Gilfillan) asserts that Crashaw "entered, but in what year is uncertain, on holy orders, and became an ardent and powerful preacher." Undoubtedly he did contemplate such a step, but there is no conclusive evidence that it was taken. The increasing sway of Puritanism in the English Church would naturally repel and unsettle him; moreover, about this time many causes were uniting to lead him to a more Catholic outlook. One of his associates at Peterhouse was the gentle Dr. Shelford, whose Five Pious and Learned Discourses bore a prefatory poem by Crashaw. Both of these souls protested against the unloveliness of Puritan worship and the bitterness of Puritan feeling; they were even so radical as to question whether considering the Pope as Anti-Christ were an essential point of Faith. "Whate'er it be," said our young poet,
Whate'er it be,
I'm sure it is no point of Charitie!
Crashaw had, moreover, acquired the habit of riding over with some frequency to Little Gidding, there to commune with Nicholas Ferrar and his ascetic companions. This "Protestant Nunnery" was a rock of offence to the Puritans, but Richard, and others of the more devout Cambridge men, found in it a very haven of inspiration. Ferrar's household made no pretence at being a religious order; it was merely a pious family-community of about thirty members; but the pervading atmosphere was decidedly (although not avowedly) Catholic. "If others knew what comfort God had ministered to them since their sequestration," Ferrar used to say, "they might take the like course."
Meanwhile the mystic lines of St. Teresa were burning their way into Crashaw's very soul. It would be hard, indeed, to over-estimate the influence of this newly-canonised Spanish nun, alike upon his literary and his spiritual life, for he seems to have paid her the devotion of a lover, a disciple and a religious enthusiast. Strange and awesome are the ways by which a soul draws near to the Source of Life; one counts the visible milestones, but dares only guess at the mysteries of that inner guidance. So with Richard Crashaw: not too closely may we trace the gradual steps which led him further and further from his past, and on to the very gates of Peter's Stronghold. Once there, he paused, waiting doubtless for strength to proceed; like Dante's Beatrice, he had "attained to look upon the beginnings of peace"—but its consummation was not yet.
The cannon of the Civil War were destined to awake the dreamer, cruelly indeed, yet kindly in the end. Crashaw had woven the glory of his own visions about the Church of England; he was soon to see her stripped of her beauties. A few days before Christmas, 1643, Manchester and his soldiers began their "reform" of Cambridge, and the lovely chapel there was sacked and desecrated. One of the official reports describes with evident elation how the Puritans came to Peterhouse "with officers and soldiers," and "pulled down two mighty great angells with wings, and divers other angells, and the foure Evangelists and Peter with his keyes, and divers superstitious letters in gold." A few months later the Parliamentary commissioners presented the Solemn League and Covenant to all fellows of that University: Crashaw with four others refused to sign, and the little band was formally ejected. The shock to a nature like our poet's must have been terrific—the very ground seemed cut from beneath his feet. For twelve years Cambridge had been his home; now its doors were closed to him for ever. Worse than all, he saw his Church impotent, subservient, shaken like a very reed before these winds of new doctrine. The two following years of his life are veiled. He is said to have resided for a while at Oxford University; later he must have been in London, where the first edition of his poems, Steps to the Temple, with other Delights to the Muses, was published in 1646. But one event is quite certain—morning star of this bitter night!—before leaving England, Richard Crashaw had been received into his soul's true home. Thenceforth he was a Catholic.
This step was, of course, disastrous to his prospects in England. Even the fondly appreciative London editor speaks of him as "now dead to us"; and some words of Prynne's flung out regarding Crashaw's "sinful and notorious apostasy and revolt" show what a passing over to "Popery" meant to the Puritans. So the young convert tried his fortunes for a while in Paris; and there in 1646 Abraham Cowley discovered him—in poverty, it seems, if not actually in want. Very touching is this reunion of the former college mates, both exiles now from their disowning fatherland; and from this time date Crashaw's modest little lines "On Two Green Apricocks sent to Mr. Cowley." Very characteristic, too, is our poet's answer to his friend's verses on "Hope." "Dear Hope," he cried with wistful optimism:
Dear Hope, by thee
We are not where we are nor what we be,
But where and what we would be!
Moreover Cowley (being officially connected with the suite of the exiled English Queen, then also in Paris) was able to offer help to his brother poet. Henrietta Maria received Crashaw with all graciousness; and when, a few years later, he determined to visit Rome, she gave him introductory letters there. More than this she was no longer able to do. It is probable that most of Crashaw's later poems—those of the Carmen Deo Nostro—were written in the French capital. They were entirely religious in character, and Crashaw himself prepared more than half a score of the most interesting and characteristic illustrations for them; but their publication was not till 1652. The dedication of this volume to the Countess of Denbigh reveals a "friend and patron," whom we would gladly know better; but even Dr. Grosart has been able to discover little more than that she was probably Susan, the sister of Buckingham. This latter lady did, we know, eventually enter the Catholic Church. In one of these poems, "Against Irresolution in Matters of Religion," Crashaw had exhorted her with angelic eloquence to that step which had cost himself so much.
About 1648 or 1649, Crashaw took up his abode in Italy; and, possibly through the influence of Henrietta Maria, became private secretary to Cardinal Palotta, then Governor of Rome. This "good Cardinal" seems to have won and merited the poet's sincerest admiration; but the official life was stormy and uncongenial. Dreamer, mystic that he was, Crashaw had little place amid the sin and noise and conflict of the world. In time, moreover, he discovered flagrant corruption in the Governor's own suite, and fearlessly reported it. This expostulation appears to have been entirely just, but it drew upon the young English-man's head the whole wrath of the offending Italians; and so bitter grew the feeling that Cardinal Palotta was obliged to find some other refuge for his protégé. So the choice fell upon the Loretto, scene of many a pious pilgrimage, and Crashaw was appointed sub-canon of the basilica church there. This last scene in the dreamer's human tragedy has been thus described by Mr. Edmund Gosse:
"We can imagine with what feelings of rapture and content the world-worn poet crossed the Apennines and descended to the dry little town above the shores of the Adriatic. . . . As he ascended the last hill, and saw before him the magnificent basilica which Bramante had built as a shelter for the Holy House, he would feel that his feet were indeed upon the threshold of his rest. With what joy, with what a beating heart he would long to see that very Santa Casa, the cottage built of brick, which angels lifted from Nazareth out of the black hands of the Saracen, and gently dropped among the nightingales in the forest of Loreta on that mystic night of the year 1294. There . . . the humble Casa lay in the marble enclosure which Sansovino had made for it, and there through the barbaric brickwork window in the Holy Chimney he could see, in a trance of wonder, the gilded head of Madonna's cedarn image that St. Luke the Evangelist had carved with his own hands. . . . To minister all day in the rich incense . . . to trim the golden lamps . . . to pass in and out between the golden cherubim and brazen seraphim. . . . There, in the very house of Jesus, to hear the noise and mutter of the officiating priest, the bustle of canons, chaplains, monks, and deacons, the shrill sweet voices of the acolytes singing all day long—this must have seemed the very end of life and beginning of heaven to the mystical and sensuous Crashaw."
But a greater rest was at hand. Making his
The Church of The Holy House of Loretto
Where Crashaw lies buried
journey from Rome in the summer of 1650, the poet contracted a fever which quickly broke his constitution: only a few weeks did he linger before the altar—then the church which was to have been his sanctuary became his tomb:
How well, blest swan, did fate contrive thy death;
And make thee render up thy tuneful breath
In thy great Mistress' arms, thou most divine
And richest offering of Loretto's shrine!
So sang Abraham Cowley of his friend—"poet and saint, O hard and rarest union that can be!"
Born in earlier ages, Crashaw might be pictured as going to martyrdom with a smile and a hymn of praise upon his lips: or, in the quiet of a monastic cell he might have worked lovingly upon those heavenly verses—a poetic Fra Angelico. But the thundering questions of Cromwell's day woke little echo in his nature. All about him men were demanding if king or parliament should rule England; he cared little, providing the Counsels of Perfection ruled his own life, and dreamed on while others fought. Crashaw was not, perhaps, a leader of men; but he was most indubitably a follower of God. And he could act as well as dream when the crisis came—he could and did act with such an uncompromising fidelity to truth and to his own ideals that the old world's story is brighter for his record.
With estimates of Richard Crashaw it is customary to couple the name of George Herbert; a comparison which was begun by that editor of 1646, and has persisted since. Superficially it seems reasonable: their writings were almost contemporaneous; they were said to be of the same "school"; both were sincerely religious; their very titles, The Temple and Steps to the Temple, imply more than an accidental propinquity. But in truth, one might almost as well compare Jeremy Taylor with Ignatius Loyola. In Herbert's work we have the piously beautiful fancies of a poetic English clergyman; in Crashaw's, the burning dreams of a genius and a mystic. Speaking of this from a wholly literary standpoint, Dr. Grosart declares our poet's work "of a diviner stuff, and woven in a grander loom; in sooth, infinitely deeper and finer in almost every element of true singing as differenced from pious and gracious versifying." But obviously the stream was not innocent of tributaries. The influence of the Italian Marino is conspicuous, not only in Crashaw's translation of the "Sospetto d'Herode," but throughout his style as a whole; indeed, this elaborate fancifulness of writing is noticeable in all the poets of the day. There is, to boot, more than a touch of John Donne's subtlety in his work, although but little of his ambiguity. As for Robert Southwell, I think we cannot doubt his influence on Crashaw, and his real affinity of temperament; he is one of the very few other Englishmen in whom we find this singular blending of "conceit" with deep sincerity—of emotional tenderness with ascetic concentration upon things divine. But most potent of all were the writings of the great Spanish contemplative, St. Teresa:
I learnt to know that Love is eloquence,
Crashaw declares: and again—
Thus have I back again to thy bright name,
(Fair flood of holy fires !) transfus'd the flame
I took from reading thee!
Francis Thompson has declared that Crashaw was a Shelley manqué; while Shelley was what the so-called "Metaphysical School" should have been and tended to be. Something of all this was anticipated by an earlier critic, Mr. Gilfillan, who was happy in pointing out that "in soaring imagination, in gorgeous language, in ecstasy of lyrical movement, Crashaw very much resembles Shelley, and may be called the Christian Shelley:
'His raptures are
All air and fire.'
Yes: it is the air of the rose-garden, but the fire of the censer. In his religious poems Crashaw rises altogether above terrestrial limits, and bequeaths us half-intoxicating draughts of fiery, tender beauties. That famous "Hymn to the Name and Honour of the Admirable Sainte Teresa" thrills with a loveliness never bred upon our humble earth.
Scarce has she blood enough to make
A guilty sword blush for her sake;
Yet has she blood enough to prove
How much less strong is Death than Love,
the poet writes in allusion to her childish desire for martyrdom; and later he breaks into that wondrous outburst:
Thou art Love's victime; and must dy
A death more mysticall and high,
His is the dart must make the death
Whose stroke shall taste thy hallow'd breath;
A dart thrice dip't in that rich flame
Which writes thy Spouse's radiant name
Upon the roof of Heav'n, where ay
It shines; and with a sovereign ray
Beates bright upon the burning faces
Of soules which in that Name's sweet graces
Find everlasting smiles.
For full two hundred years after Crashaw there was no English poet at all comparable to him in this rapturous beauty of religious singing. Even now, the tale of his successors is quickly told—Dante Rossetti in exquisite moments, Patmore in odes, Lionel Johnson in a few wistful pages, and, finally, Francis Thompson; for it is a strain fugitive and homesick in our modern world. But to be, in Richard Crashaw's understanding, was to make melody:
Wake, in the name
Of Him who never sleeps, all things that are,
Or, what's the same,
And like the Assisian, he included all creatures in this universal harmony, the little things and weak as well as the mighty.
Nor yields the noblest nest
Of warbling seraphim to the eares of Love
A choicer lesson than the joyfull breast
Of a poor panting turtle-dove,
declares his hymn "To the Name Above Every Name."
Crashaw's secular lyrics, while less distinctively characteristic, might very well have made the reputation of another man. Whether one considers the dainty love-lines of his "Wishes," the tender simplicity of his "Epitaph on a Newly Married Couple," or the gaiety of "Cupid's Cryer" and "Love's Horoscope," one is certain to find cause for delighted appreciation. Yet probably the brightest gem of them all is "Musick's Duel": truly "fraught with a fury so harmonious" that it leaves poet and reader gasping at its close. Nothing was ever so charming and reassuring as to watch a saint at play—and in these poems the holy mystic does play delectably; nay, the artist rejoices as a strong man to run his race. By them, one knows that Crashaw was not a one-sided genius, but liberal in his love and sympathies.
If it should be necessary to characterise Crashaw's work by three epithets, the manifest points would seem to be his spirituality, his ingenuity, and his sensuous emotion. In the last two exercises he has, haply, fallen into excess, and, most of all, in his religious poems. He is prone to "invoke Sweetness by all her names," and for all the world
Like a soft lump of incense, hasted
By too hot a fire, and wasted
Into perfuming clouds,
rise his breathless raptures. One turns giddy trying to follow him: or else, standing judicially aside, one declares the infatuated poet to have been giddy himself.
This is the persistent reproach of "The Weeper," in many ways a great and touching poem, yet subject to the ridicule and criticism even of those who love Crashaw best. "Mea culpa—mea maxima culpa," one seems to see him smiling down to us, from his high eternal place. Yet, if his earthly metaphors were occasionally strained, they were almost infallibly beautiful and quite infallibly telling. In fact, they were at moments too telling for our sober taste. So also with his extreme sensibility. It is rather un-English, possibly distasteful even to the colder English mind; but it is certainly not "swooning" or "languishing," as Gilfillan once complained—largely, one infers, because he imagined Catholic mysticism to be a swooning and languishing thing. Crashaw's nature, in every fibre, was as sensitive to each passing emotion as the strings of the harp to its master's touch: and, once struck, the note vibrated indefinitely. Il avait les défauts de ses qualités, in the familiar phrase.
Crashaw was very rarely autobiographical, yet the seal of his individuality is stamped on all his verse. Indeed, as being part of his own life and personality, his poems occupy a place quite apart from their position in literary history. He, in his own day, was often misunderstood; and it is still the easiest thing for unsympathetic minds to misunderstand the poetry he has left. Paradoxical it may sound, but is none the less true, that we must love the poet a little before we can greatly appreciate him. Strength and weakness were his, doubtless; but strength predominated alike in the man and in his work. However extravagant his fancies, they are patently the flashes of a mind rushed on by the whirlwind of unbounded imagination—never the mock-heroics of a mere rhetorician. And the reason of all this is simple enough: Richard Crashaw was fundamentally, consummately, sincere. When his verse soars up to heights celestial, among fragrant nests of seraphim and fair adoring saints, his own soul breathes through the ecstasy. Cannot we hear his voice ringing down the ages, as he appeals with characteristic self-abnegation to his beloved Teresa?
Oh, thou undaunted daughter of desires,
By all thy dower of lights and fires; By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;
By all thy lives and deaths of love;
By thy larg, draughts of intellectual day,—
And by thy thirsts of love, more larg than they;
By all thy brim-fill'd bowles of fierce desire;
By thy last morning's draught of liquid fire;
By the full kingdome of that finall kisse
That seiz'd thy parting soul, and seal'd thee His;
By all the Heav'ns thou hast in Him,
(Fair sister of the seraphim!)
By all of Him we have in thee,
Leave nothing of myself in me;
Let me so read thy life, that I
Unto all life of mine may dy!
And once having heard, could we, by any chance, confuse this voice with another's?