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Richard Crashaw

Poet, Cambridge scholar and convert; d. 1649

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Crashaw, RICHARD, poet, Cambridge scholar and convert; d. 1649. The date of his birth is uncertain. All that can be affirmed positively is that he was the only child of a one-time famous Puritan divine, William Crashaw, by a first marriage, and that he was born in London, probably not earlier than the year 1613. Of the mother nothing is known except that she died in her child’s infancy, while his father was one of the preachers in the Temple; and not even her family name has been preserved to us. William Crashaw, the father, was born in Yorkshire of a prosperous stock, which had been settled for some generations in or about Handsworth, a place some few miles to the east of the present town of Sheffield. He was a man of unchallenged repute for learning in his day, an argumentative but eloquent preacher, strong in his Protestantism, and fierce in his denunciation of “Romish falsifications” and “besotted Jesuitries”. He married a second time in 1619, and was once more made a widower in the following year. Richard, the future poet, could scarcely have been more than a child of six when this event took place; but the relations between the boy and his step-mother, brief as they must have been, were affectionate to an unusual degree. She was but four and twenty when she died in child-birth early in October, 1620, and she was buried in White-chapel. No other details of this period of Crashaw’s life have come down to us, but the few to which reference has been made make it abundantly evident that neither his poetic gifts nor the strange bias which he afterwards displayed for the more mystical side of Christianity can be explained altogether by heredity or even by early environment.

Owing to the elder Crashaw’s fame as a Temple preacher and the scarcely less notable distinction which must have attached to him as a hard-hitting Protestant pamphleteer, it was only natural that, in the then state of public opinion, a career should in time be opened to his promising son. On the nomination of Sir Randolph Crewe and Sir Henry Yelverton, the latter one of the judges of the King’s Bench, the boy was placed on a foundation in the Charterhouse School where he was brought under the influence of Robert Brooke, a master of high ideals and great practical success. The elder Crashaw died in 1626, leaving his son unprovided for; but the influence of his friends was exerted in the boy’s behalf, and on July 6, 1631, some five years after his father’s death, Richard entered Pembroke Hall in Cambridge. He did not form-ally matriculate as a scholar until March 26 of the following year, when he succeeded in getting elected to a pensionership. That he had lived for some time at Pembroke previous to his actual election on one of the foundations there seems to be proved by the poems composed on the death of William Herrys (or Harris) which took place in October, 1631. Life at Cambridge was not niggardly to Crashaw in spite of the improvidence which led him to deplete his uncertain resources by spending his little all on books. From this time forth books and friends and religion were to make up the staple of existence for him.

It is significant of the essential aloofness of his spirit, during even the chief formative years of his life, that his poems contain no reference to his early London house or to his family. Brooke, his kindly Charterhouse master, however, he commemorates more than once in affectionate terms both in Latin and in English; and the ties of university friendship seem ever to have been strong with him. Benjamin Laney, the Master of Pembrooke, a man of Laudian views, who came into his own, after the Cromwellian troubles were over, by being appointed successively to the Sees of Peter-borough, Lincoln, and Ely; John Tournay, the High Churchman, tutor of his college, who was refused a divinity degree because of his temerity in attacking the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone; Nicholas Ferrer, the enthusiast who dreamed of reviving the cenobitical idea in the Anglican Church in his home at Little Gidding; Cosin, the Royalist master of Peterhouse; John Beaumont, the author of “Psyche”; and most characteristic of all, perhaps tenderest of all, and certainly not the least notable of the “Metaphysicians”, the poet, Abraham Cowley;—these were the intimates who watched the ripening of those Cambridge years during which Crashaw achieved his titles to permanent fame. His feeling for the remote and more learned sense of words, which accounts in part for the defects as well as for the felicities of his poetic style, had manifested itself early in his academic career; and he had been but a short while at the university before he was known as an adept in five languages. His knowledge of Greek and Latin was above the average, even for a generation distinguished in no small degree for its classical scholarship, and one famous line on the Miracle of the Marriage Feast of Cana in his “Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber”, issued from the University Press in 1634, will probably be quoted as long as the Latin tongue retains its spell over Western Christianity: “Nympha pudica Deum vidit, et erubuit”. (The conscious water saw its Lord, and blushed.) Cf. Aaron Hill’s translation, 1688-1750. The year in which the “Epirammatum Sacrorum Liber” appeared was the year in which Crashaw took his bachelor’s degree. He could scarcely have been more than twenty-one at the time, and two years later, possibly on the promise of a more lucrative fellowship, he joined his friend Dr. Cosin at Peterhouse and proceeded M.A. in 1638.

For the details of his life during the next ten or eleven years we are indebted largely to the conjectures of the late Dr. Grosart, based upon the chance statements of his friends and an entry here and there in registers and diplomatic correspondence; that it was a life sincerely devoted to religious meditation is proved by the prevailing note of his poetry and by a quaintly significant remark or two of the unknown friend who wrote the original preface to the “Steps to the Temple“. That writer calls him “Herbert’s second, but equal!, who hath retriv’d Poetry of late, and returned it up to its Primitive use; Let it bound back to heaven gates, whence it came”. And he goes on to tell us how the “divine poet” had passed his life “in St. Maries Church neere St. Peter’s Colledge; there he lodged under Tertullian‘s roofe of Angels; there he made his nest more gladly than David’s Swallow neere the house of God, where, like a primitive Saint, he offered more prayers in the night than others usually offer in the day; there he penned these Poems, Steps for happy soules to climbe heaven by”. Cambridge was at this time the home, not only of “thorough” or Royalist principles in politics, but of Laudian ventures in Anglicanism; and it was only to be expected, that, when the Puritan storm broke at last in the guise of civil war, Crashaw and his friends should be among the first to suffer from its fury. The poet joined the king at Oxford sometime after March, 1643; there he remained but a short while. When next we hear from him it is as an impecunious scholar in great distress in Paris where his friend Cowley unexpectedly discovered him and obtained for him an introduction to Queen Henrietta Maria. Cowley went to Paris as secretary to Lord Jermyn in 1646; but some time before this—the date and immediate circumstances of the event are entirely unknown—Crashaw had become dissatisfied with Anglican Christianity and had made his sub-mission to the Roman See.

Through the intervention of Queen Henrietta he obtained an honorable post in the great household of Cardinal Palotta. It is pathetic to have to note that the conscience of the man who had suffered so much to win for himself the grace of a consistent creed was scandalized at the spectacle of inconsistency afforded by the curious lives of some of his new-found Italian fellow-believers. Difficulties multiplied for him, and it was said that his life was threatened. (“Pope Alexander the Seventh and the College of Cardinals”, edited for the Camden Society, 1867, and quoted by Canon Beeching in Tutin’s edition of the “Poems”, Introduction, pp. XXX-XXXI). The kindly cardinal, however, interested himself in his behalf and obtained for him a more congenial post in the shape of a minor benefice at the shrine of Loretto. He was “inducted” on the 24th of April, 1649, and there some four weeks later he died, suddenly it would seem, from heat-apoplexy brought on by his exertions during a pilgrimage.

His place in English literature may be said to be fixed now for all time. If he is not the most important, he is at any rate not the least distinguished of that remarkable group of Caroline lyrists described so unsympathetically, it might even be said so ineptly, by Dr. Johnson, as belonging to the Metaphysical School. Like Herbert and Donne and Cowley, he is in love with the smaller graces of life and the profounder truths of religion, while he seems forever preoccupied with the secret architecture of things. He has, in his better moments of inspiration, a rare and singularly felicitous gift of epithet and phrase, as when he addresses St. Teresa in the famous outburst of religious enthusiasm that marks the close of the “Apology”:

O 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 large draughts of intellectual day,
And by thy thirsts of love more large than they;
By all thy brim-filled bowls of fierce desire,
And by thy last morning’s draughts of liquid fire;
By the full kingdom of that final kiss
That seized thy parting soul, and seal’d thee His,—

or when he bespeaks for the ideal wife in the justly famed “Wishes to his (supposed) Mistress.”

Whate’er delight,
Can make Day’s forehead bright,
Or give down to the wings of Night.

If his predilection is for those wanton arabesques of rhythm in which fancy seems suddenly to become crystallized as wit, on the other hand his lyric gift too often becomes merely elaborate and flags because he is forever in quest of a surprise. In addition to the collections of his verse referred to above, he wrote a group of sacred songs under the title of “Carmen Deo Nostro” which he dedicated to his friend and patron, Lady Denbigh, but which was not published until three years after his death, and another group of occasional pieces which he called “The Delights of the Muses” (1648).


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