Richard 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 ("Infant Martyrs").

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 Poems:

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. 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?

  2. 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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