Crashaw, Steps to the Temple, The Delights of the Muses (1646) and Carmen
Deo Nostro (1652)
Genre: devotional poetry,
experimenting with metaphysical imagery borrowed from the continental tradition of the
religious mystics (esp. St. Teresa of Avila) and from visual art forms associated with
Catholic celebrations of saints' sufferings and mystics' visions.
Form: mainly tetrameter
couplets, with some metrical experiments in alternating tetrameter and dimeter
Characters: saints and
innocents, Jesus and the angels.
Summary: Crashaw is the
foremost exponent of the style that critics now call (after W. Sypher, 1955) the Baroque
[from the French for an irregularly shaped pearl, perhaps from the Arabic (buraq)
for stony or pebbled ground]. Baroque style resolves the agonized conflicts of Mannerism, which
we see in the metaphysical conceits of Donne, Herbert, and some Herrick. Those poets
created exotic and self-consciously inappropriate metaphors (lover-Beloved are like the
feet of the navigator's compass, in Donne's "Validiction: Forbidding Mourning")
to lure the reader into a felt appreciation of their emotional distress beyond the
immediate stimulus of the poem's situation (they're parting for a while, but their grief
makes his language search for near impossible comparisons). T.S. Eliot, in his essay
on Shakespeare's Hamlet, said such poetic overstatement (in Hamlet's case,
his response to the situation of the play) lacks an "objective correlative" or
sufficient motive in the context to warrant the bizarre poetic response (Sypher 192).
The baroque poet, like Crashaw or Milton (in Paradise Lost, not
"Lycidas"), chooses a subject so grand and so passionately engaging that the
poem's language overflows into massive scenes, exotic images with complex decoration that
fills all available space with variations on the main theme, and a tendency to develop the
physical sense of a poetic metaphor into all its possible comparative significances (see
Crashaw's "On the Wounds of our Crucified Lord," 1390).
Comments on Individual
- "To the Infant
Martyrs"--how does its use of "Milk" conflate the cosmic and the earthly to
achieve a religious significance?
- "I Am the
Door"--The "door" in question is the spear wound delivered by the centurion
at the Crucifixion--in what sense is the centurion locked out by the wound that opens the
door of salvation?
- "On the Wounds of Our
Crucified Lord"--How does the poetic strategy of comparison between wounds and body
parts resemble the strategies of the earlier, Petrarchan poets describing the beloved's
body, and how does the occasion differ?
- "On Our Crucified Lord,
Naked and Bloody"--compare this with Herbert's use of the crucifixion motif--what
changes does the baroque poet make?
- "In the Holy Nativity
of Our Lord God..."--This is a divine pastoral of a rather traditional sort, but
notice how the paradox of a universe-creating god in an infant's form sets up a series of
fantastic notions (e.g., the "bed for this huge birth" in l. 41 and the idea of
"Eternity shut in a span" in l. 80).
- "Non Vi"--the
locked heart emblem is familiar from emblem books (see note, 1394), but also resembles
heart-shaped books familiar from the late medieval and early renaissance. The poem
(like some of Donne's) visualizes the struggle of faith as a battle in a civil war
to win consent to a just rule.
- How does the poem's size, when compared with Donne's
sonnet 14, for instance, reflect Crashaw's Baroque sensibilities?
- Click here
to read Eric Jager's essay about the history of the heart as a symbolic
device in literature and culture (also see his The History of the Heart,
Chicago: U Chicago P, 2000).
- "The Flaming
Heart..."--This evocation of St. Teresa of Avila's mystical testaments may have drawn
directly upon a baroque sculpture by Bernini (see Norton introduction, 1396). To see
the sculpture, depicting the angel with the flaming arrow about to pierce her heart, click
The postures and expressions of the
white marble figures appear to be referred to directly in the poem.
Note, too, how Crashaw takes Donne's strategy of multiplying the
active verbs for the ecstatic event and attaches them to an even longer list of outcomes
which develop the cosmic consequences of this experience (ll. 79-80 and 94-108).
- How might this
kind of "multi-media poetry" suggest a new approach to the arts which might
result in the rise of new forms, including opera (also see "Non Vi" with its
Issues and Research Sources:
- If Marvell underwent a kind of
temporary isolation, Crashaw was not merely forgotten in the next century, but openly
mocked (see Norton introduction, 1389).
- What does that tell us about variations in
style, and what might that mean for our contemporary attitudes toward Crashaw's work?
- Can Crashaw and the rest of the
baroque artists be compared with any movements in recent popular music, given their
interests in exotic materialist imagery, working out grotesque and delirious variations on
impassioned themes, etc.? Can the style known as baroque be attached, as Sypher
tries to do, to an era's theological or political struggles, and if so, what in our own
time might produce such movements?
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