1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Crashaw

Richard Crashaw
English poet
(1613-50)




RICHARD CRASHAW, (1613-1650), the poet, styled '' the divine," was born in London in 1613. He was the son of a strongly anti-papistical divine, Dr William Crashaw, who distinguished himself, even in those times, by the exces-sive acerbity of his writings against the Catholics. Richard Crashaw was originally put to Bchool at Charter House, 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 Sacrorum Liber, a volume of Latin verse.?. In March 1636 he removed to Peterhouse, and was made a fellow of that college in 1637. It was about this time that he made the acquaintance and secured the lasting friendship of Cowley. 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 fellow-ship 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 anony-mous friend, and published under the title of Steps to the Temple and The Delights of the Muses, in one volume, in 1646. This same year Cowley found him in great destitu-tion 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 secretary at Borne to Cardinal Palotta. In 1648 he pub-lished 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 were 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, how-ever, 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 latest religious poems, entitled Carmen Deo Nostro, was brought out in 1652, dedicated at the dead poet's desire to the faithful friend of his sufferings, the countess of Denbigh. 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 embalmed hia memory 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 charac-ter 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 he, 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 bond-age 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 the most rococo 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 etherial beauty. The temper of hia intellect seems to have been delicate and weak, fiery and uncertain; he has a morbid, almost hysterical, passion about him even when hia ardour is most exquisitely ex-pressed, and his adoring addresses to the sainta have an effeminate falsetto that makes them almost repulsive. The faults and beauties of his very peculiar style can be studied nowhere to more advantage than in the Hymn to Saint Theresa. 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, from Strada down to Coppee, and Wishes to his supposed Mistress. In his latest sacred poems, 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 repellant. The themes of Crashaw's verse 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 "W. B. Turnbull. In 1872 an edition, in 2 vols, was printed for private subscription by the Rev. A. B. Grosart. (E. W. G.)







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