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CRASHAW, RICHARD (1613-1649) Richard Crashaw was born the only child of William Crashaw, a Puritan preacher and rabid anti-Catholic. His father's vocation probably helped determine the tumultuous nature of his later spiritual life, although both of his parents died while he was still a teenager. Educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, a High Church college, Crashaw graduated in 1634. That same year he published Latin epigrams on scriptural matters titled Epigrammatum sacrorum liber, which helped him win a fellowship in 1635. When the Royalists were defeated in the Civil War, Crashaw lost his fellowship in 1644, but he had already left Cambridge. He had long preferred ritual and ceremony to the barrenness of his father's religion; that preference contributed to his conversion to Roman Catholicism after two years in exile from England, along with fellow exiles William Cowley, the countess of Denbigh, and Queen Henrietta Maria. He lived as a Catholic for his last five years, taking up residence on the Continent and ultimately in Rome. He held a minor position at the Loreto cathedral at the time of his death.
An admirer of George Herbert, Crashaw wrote religious poetry, although he did not emulate Herbert. Herbert's influence as a fellow Cambridge graduate who achieved an academic reputation with his spiritual poetry proved obvious in the title of Crashaw's Steps to the Temple (1646). However, where Herbert's verse exhibits grace and intimacy, Crashaw's verse is a study in hyperbole that often results in grotesque imagery. His passionate nature and expressive faith affected his diction and resulted in what the critic George Sim-cox refers to as an "epidemic of conceits," often with a ludicrous result. For example, in his brief poem "To the Infant Martyrs," he focuses on infants who have been murdered for a cause, a group who should elicit pity and admiration. Instead, Crashaw offers them a bad pun on mother's milk in his final line: "Go, smiling souls, your new-built cages break / In heaven you'll learn to sing, ere here to speak / Nor let the milky fonts that bathe your thirst / Be your delay / the place that calls you hence is, at the worst, / Milk all the way." One almost wishes not to recognize in the final line a play on the celestial Milky Way. On the other hand, Crashaw also produced poems admirable for their simple rhythm and sound, such as "Description of a Religious House," and has been described as having a style smoother and more fluent than those of the tame Herbert, with whom his ferocious energy contrasted.
Crashaw published Sacred Epigrams in Latin (1634), a posthumous version of which contained some epigrams in Greek translations as well. With the help of a person identified only as "an English friend," he combined Steps to the Temple and a collection of secular poems, The Delights of the Muses, for publication in 1646; his last work would be a collection titled Carme Deo Nostro, published in Paris in 1652. Additional individual works were later discovered. Anthologized selections include "I Am the Door," and "On the Wounds of Our Crucified Lord," both excellent examples containing grotesque metaphors, and "In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by the Shepherds," "The Flaming Heart upon the Book and Picture of the Seraphical Saint Teresa," and "To the Noblest & Best of Ladies, the Countess of Denbigh."
other influences included Jesuits specializing in Latin epigrams and the Italian writer Giambattista Marino, another poet who embraced the grotesque. Among Crashaw's several translations was a portion of Marino's The Massacre of the Innocents, a poem whose violent topic would have attracted him. His blatant focus on torture and death at times verged on the sadistic, with no redemption to be found in any well-turned phrase. However, his zeal cannot be denied, nor his energy; he was known to engage in constant revision. He produced among his scant work only one secular lyric, "Wishes: To His (Supposed) Mistress."
Much of Crashaw's work elicited scorn from readers in later centuries. However, his excesses remained so consistent that they admitted the skill he exhibited in following a format similar to the baroque. All of his works boast elaborately drawn titles containing varied lettering and stacks of lines that have been compared to baroque architecture. Twenty-first-century readers may be ready to embrace Crashaw as an accomplished artist with sensibilities found more acceptable in a post-postmodern culture. He produces a disturbing collage of topics at once spiritual and erotic, innocent and cynical, his tone verging on exhibitionism. Although his works were once received with derision, Crashaw's poetry gained favor from a more widespread understanding of the manner by which one art affects another, offering insight into Crashaw's greatly embellished style. He intended that his form reflect that of the baroque, and he achieved his goal.
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