Biography of Richard Crashaw (1613 – 1650)
Richard Crashaw (c. 1613 – August 25, 1650), English poet, styled “the divine,” was born in London.
He was the son of a strongly anti-papistical divine, Dr William Crashaw (1572-1626), who distinguished himself, even in those times, by the excessive acerbity of his writings against the Catholics. In spite of these opinions, however, he was attracted by Catholic devotion, for he translated several Latin hymns of the Jesuits. Richard Crashaw was originally put to school at Charterhouse, but in July 1631 he was admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he took the degree of B.A. in 1634. The publication of Herbert’s Temple in 1633 seems to have finally determined the bias of his genius in favour of religious poetry, and next year he published his first book, Epigrammatum sacroruni liber, a volume of Latin verses.
In March 1636 he removed to Peterhouse, was made a fellow of that college in 1637, and proceeded M.A. in 1638. It was about this time that he made the acquaintance and secured the lasting friendship of Abraham Cowley. He was also on terms of intimacy with the Anglican monk Nicholas Ferrar, and frequently visited him at his religious house at Little Gidding. In 1641 he is said to have gone to Oxford, but only for a short time; for when in 1643 Cowley left Cambridge to seek a refuge at Oxford, Crashaw remained behind, and was forcibly ejected from his fellowship in 1644. In the confusion of the civil wars he escaped to France, where he finally embraced the Catholic religion, towards which he had long been tending.
During his exile his religious and secular poems were collected by an anonymous friend, and published under the title of Steps to the Temple and The Delights of the Muses, in one volume, in 1646. The first part includes the hymn to St Teresa and the version of Marini’s Sospetto d’Herode. This same year Cowley found him in great destitution at Paris, and induced Queen Henrietta Maria to extend towards him what influence she still possessed. At her introduction he proceeded to Italy, where he became attendant to Cardinal Palotta at Rome. In 1648 he published two Latin hymns at Paris.
He remained until 1649 in the service of the cardinal, to whom he had a great personal attachment; but his retinue contained persons whose violent and licentious behaviour was a source of ceaseless vexation to the sensitive English mystic. At last his denunciation of their excesses became so public that the animosity of those persons was excited against him, and in. order to shield him from their revenge he was sent by the cardinal in 1650 to Loretto, where he was made a canon of the Holy House. In less than three weeks, however, he sickened of fever, and died not without grave suspicion of having been poisoned. He was buried in the Lady chapel at Loretto. A collection of his religious poems, entitled Carmen Deo nostro, was brought out in Paris in 1652, dedicated at the dead poet’s desire to the faithful friend of his sufferings, the countess of Denbigh. The book is illustrated by thirteen engravings after Crashaw’s own designs.
Crashaw excelled in all manner of graceful accomplishments; besides being an excellent Latinist and Hellenist, he had an intimate knowledge of Italian and Spanish; and his skill in music, painting and engraving was no less admired in his lifetime than his skill in poetry. Cowley memorialized him in an elegy that ranks among the very finest in our language, in which he, a Protestant, well expressed the feeling left on the minds of contemporaries by the character of the young Catholic poet:
"His faith, perhaps, in some nice tenets might Be wrong; his life, I'm sure, was in the right: And I, myself, a Catholic will be, So far at least, dear saint, to pray to thee"
The poetry of Crashaw will be best appreciated by those who can with most success free themselves from the bondage of a traditional sense of the dignity of language. The custom of his age permitted the use of images and phrases which we now justly condemn as incongruous and unseemly, and the fervent fancy of Crashaw carried this licence to excess. At the same time his verse is studded with fiery beauties and sudden felicities of language, unsurpassed by any lyrist between his own time and Shelley’s.
There is no religious poetry in English so full at once of gross and awkward images and imaginative touches of the most ethereal beauty. The temper of his intellect seems to have been delicate and weak, fiery and uncertain; he has a morbid, almost hysterical, passion about him, even when his ardour is most exquisitely expressed, and his adoring addresses to the saints have an effeminate falsetto that makes their ecstasy almost repulsive. The faults and beauties of his very peculiar style can be studied nowhere to more advantage than in the Hymn to Saint Teresa.
Among the secular poems of Crashaw the best are Music’s Duel, which deals with that strife between the musician and the nightingale which has inspired so many poets, and Wishes to his supposed Mistress. In his latest sacred poems, included in the Carmen Deo nostro, sudden and eminent beauties are not wanting, but the mysticism has become more pronounced, and the ecclesiastical mannerism more harsh and repellent. The themes of Crashaw’s verses are as distinct as possible from those of Shelley’s, but it may, on the whole, be said that at his best moments he reminds the reader more closely of the author of Epipsychidion than of any earlier or later poet.
Crashaw’s works were first collected, in one volume, in 1858 by WB Turnbull. In 1872 an edition, in 2 volumes, was printed for private subscription by the Rev. AB Grosart. A complete edition was edited (1904) for the Cambridge University Press by Mr AR Waller.
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