Thursday, August 25, 2011

Richard Crashaw, Baroque Metaphysical Poet

Richard Crashaw, born around 1613 in London, joined the Catholic Church in France while in exile from the Civil War in England. His father is commonly called a "strongly anti-Catholic" Anglican divine who yet had an interest in Jesuit Latin hymns.

Crashaw studied at Cambridge and took his BA at Pembroke in 1634 and his MA at Peterhouse in 1638, becoming the vicar at the Church of St. Mary the Less. He was influenced by George Herbert's poetry, friends with Abraham Cowley and even visited Nicholas Farrar at Little Gidding--securely in the Anglican High Church community. The Church of St. Mary the Less, called so to distinguish it from the University Church of St. Mary the Great, still calls itself an Anglo-Catholic church today.

He was forced from his Fellowship at Peterhouse in 1644 and fled the country. In Paris he became destitute; Abraham Cowley brought him to the attention of the exiled Queen Henrietta Maria who gained him some patronage from a Roman Cardinal. He lived for a time at the Venerable English College in Rome. Crashaw became upset with the licentious behavior of some of the Cardinal's retinue however and was moved to Loreto for safety, as a Canon of the Holy House. Soon after his arrival there he died, on August 25, 1649. There is a rumor of poisoning by that faction of the Cardinal's retinue.

Richard Crashaw is one of the Metaphysical Poets, remarkable for the brilliance and extravagance of his language and imagery. Here is an example of his simpler style of verse:

Two went up to the Temple to Pray

Two went to pray? Or rather say
One went to brag, th'other to pray

One stands up close and treads on high,
Where th'other dates not lend his eye.

One nearer to God's altar trod;
The other to the altar's God.

Crashaw was also influenced by the mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila and composed three poems in her honor, the most famous being "The Flaming Heart."

Abraham Cowley wrote an elegy to his friend, praising him as "poet and saint" and proclaiming that he, Abraham, "a Catholic will be/So far at least, Great Saint, to pray to thee" while defending Crashaw's leaving the Church of England for "Error"!

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