Crashaw and Marvell

Critic: George MacDonald
Source: England's Antiphon, Macmillan & Co. Publishers, 1868, pp. 238–50
Criticism about: Richard Crashaw (c. 1612?-1649)
Genre(s):  Love poetry; Visionary poetry; Religious literature 

[In the following except, MacDonald explores Crashaw's "Easter Day" and other poems, asserting their poetic musicality, sentimentalism, and "strangeness of expression."]

I come now to one of the loveliest of our angel-birds, Richard Crashaw. Indeed he was like a bird in more senses than one; for he belongs to that class of men who seem hardly ever to get foot-hold of this world, but are ever floating in the upper air of it.

What I said of a peculiar Æolian word-music in William Drummond applies with equal truth to Crashaw; while of our own poets, somehow or other, he reminds me of Shelley, in the silvery a shine and bell-like melody both of his verse and his imagery; and in one of his poems, "Music's Duel," the fineness of his phrase reminds me of Keats. But I must not forget that it is only with his sacred, his best poems too, that I am now concerned. (p. 238)

There is much in his verses of that sentimentalism which is rife in modern Catholic poetry. I will give from Crashaw a specimen of the kind of it. Avoiding a more sacred object, one stanza from a poem of thirty-one, most musical, and full of lovely speech concerning the tears of Mary Magdalen, will suit my purpose.

   Hail, sister springs,
Parents of silver-footed rills!
  Ever-bubbling things!
Thawing crystal! Snowy hills,
Still spending, never spent!--I mean
Thy fair eyes, sweet Magdalene!
The poem is called "The Weeper," and is radiant of delicate fancy. But surely such tones are not worthy of flitting moth-like about the holy sorrow of a repentant woman! Fantastically beautiful, they but play with her grief. Sorrow herself would put her shoes off her feet in approaching the weeping Magdalene. They make much of her indeed, but they show her little reverence. There is in them, notwithstanding their fervour of amorous words, a coldness like that which dwells in the ghostly beauty of icicles shining in the moon.

But I almost reproach myself for introducing Crashaw thus. I had to point out the fact, and now having done with it, I could heartily wish I had room to expatiate on his loveliness even in such poems as "The Weeper."

His Divine Epigrams are not the most beautiful, but they are to me the most valuable of his verses, inasmuch as they make us feel afresh the truth which he sets forth anew. In them some of the facts of our Lord's life and teaching look out upon us as from clear windows of the past. As epigrams, too, they are excellent--pointed as a lance. ...

I value the following as a lovely parable. Mary is not contented: to see the place is little comfort. The church itself, with all its memories of the Lord, the gospel-story, and all theory about him, is but his tomb until we find himself.

"Come, See The Place Where The Lord Lay."

Show me himself, himself, bright sir! Oh show
Which way my poor tears to himself may go.
Were it enough to show the place, and say,
"Look, Mary; here see where thy Lord once lay;"
Then could I show these arms of mine, and say,
"Look, Mary; here see where thy Lord once lay."

From one of eight lines, on the Mother Mary looking on her child in her lap, I take the last two, complete in themselves, and I think best alone.
This new guest to her eyes new laws hath given:
'Twas once look up, 'tis now look down to heaven.
And here is perhaps his best.
"Two Went Up Into The Temple To Pray."

Two went to pray? Oh rather say,
One went to brag, the other to pray.
One stands up close, and treads on high,
Where the other dares not lend his eye.
One nearer to God's altar trod;
The other to the altar's God.

This appears to me perfect. Here is the true relation between the forms and the end of religion. The priesthood, the altar and all its ceremonies, must vanish from between the sinner and his God. When the priest forgets his mediation of a servant, his duty of a door-keeper to the temple of truth, and takes upon him the office of an intercessor, he stands between man and God, and is a Satan, an adversary. Artistically considered, the poem could hardly be improved. (pp. 239-41)

The following is a world-wide intercession for them that know not what they do. Of those that reject the truth, who can be said ever to have truly seen it? A man must be good to see truth. It is a thought suggested by our Lord's words, not an irreverent opposition to the truth of them.


But now they have seen and hated.
Seen? and yet hated thee? They did not see--
They saw thee not, that saw and hated thee!
No, no; they saw thee not, O Life! O Love!
Who saw aught in thee that their hate could move.

We must not be too ready to quarrel with every oddity: an oddity will sometimes just give the start to an outbreak of song. The strangeness of the following hymn rises almost into grandeur.
                 "Easter Day."

                 Rise, heir of fresh eternity,
                   From thy virgin-tomb;
Rise, mighty man of wonders, and thy world with thee;
               Thy tomb, the universal East--
                     Nature's new womb;
    Thy tomb--fair Immortality's perfuméd nest.

               Of all the glories make noon gay
                          This is the morn;
This rock buds forth the fountain of the streams of day;
       In joy's white annals lives this hour,
                        When life was born,
No cloud-scowl on his radiant lids, no tempest-lower.

               Life, by this light's nativity,
                       All creatures have;
Death only by this day's just doom is forced to die.
          Nor is death forced; for, may he lie
                     Throned in thy grave,
 Death will on this condition be content to die.

When we come, in the writings of one who has revealed masterdom, upon any passage that seems commonplace, or any figure that suggests nothing true, the part of wisdom is to brood over that point; for the probability is that the barrenness lies in us, two factors being necessary for the result of sight--the thing to be seen and the eye to see it. No doubt the expression may be inadequate, but if we can compensate the deficiency by adding more vision, so much the better for us.

In the second stanza there is a strange combination of images: the rock buds; and buds a fountain; the fountain is light. But the images are so much one at the root, that they slide gracefully into each other and there is no confusion or incongruity: the result is an inclined plane of development.

I now come to the most musical and most graceful, therefore most lyrical, of his poems. I have left out just three stanzas, because of the sentimentalism of which I have spoken: I would have left out more if I could have done so without spoiling the symmetry of the poem. My reader must be friendly enough to one who is so friendly to him, to let his peculiarities pass unquestioned--amongst the rest his conceits, as well as the trifling discord that the she pherds should be called, after the classical fashion--ill agreeing, from its associations, with Christian song--Tityrus and Thyrsis.


"A Hymn Of The Nativity Sung By The Shepherd's."

Chorus. Come, we shepherds, whose blest sight
Hath met love's noon in nature's night;
Come, lift we up our loftier song,
And wake the sun that lies too long.

To all our world of well-stolen joy
He slept, and dreamed of no such thing,
While we found out heaven's fairer eye,
 And kissed the cradle of our king:
Tell him he rises now too late
To show us aught worth looking at.

Tell him we now can show him more 
Than he e'er showed to mortal sight--
Than he himself e'er saw before,
Which to be seen needs not his light:
Tell him, Tityrus, where thou hast been;
Tell him, Thyrsis, what thou hast seen.

Tityrus. Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the noble infant lay:
The babe looked up and showed his face:
     In spite of darkness it was day.
It was thy day, sweet, and did rise
Not from the east, but from they eyes.

 Chorus. It was thy day, sweet, &c.

Thyrsis. Winter child around, and sent
     The angry north to wage his wars:
The north forgot his fierce intent,
     And left perfumes instead of scars.
By those sweet eyes' persuasive powers,
Where he meant frosts, he scattered flowers.

 Chorus. By those sweet eyes', &c.

Both. We saw thee in thy balmy nest,
     Young dawn of our eternal day;
We saw thine eyes break from the east,
     And chase the trembling shades away.
We saw thee, and we blessed the sight;
We saw thee by thine own sweet light.

 Chorus. We saw thee, &c.

Tityrus. "Poor world," said I, "what wilt thou do
     To entertain this starry stranger?
Is this the best thou canst bestow--
     A cold and not too cleanly manger?
Contend, the powers of heaven and earth,
To fit a bed for this huge birth."

    Chorus. Contend, the powers, &c.

Thyrsis. "Proud world," said I, "cease your contest,
     And let the mighty babe alone:
The phonix builds the phonix' nest--
     Love's architecture is his own.
The babe, whose birth embraves this morn,
Made his own bed ere he was born."

    Chorus. The babe, whose birth, &c.

Tityrus. I saw the curl'd drops, soft and slow,
     Come hovering o'er the place's head,
Offering their whitest sheets of snow
     To furnish the fair infant's bed:
"Forbear," said I; "be not too bold:
Your fleece is white, but 'tis too cold."

    Chorus. "Forbear," said I, &c.

Thyrsis. I saw the obsequious seraphim
     Their rosy fleece of the fire bestow;
For well they now can spare their wings,
     Since heaven itself lies here below.
"Well done," said I; "but are you sure
Your down, so warm, will pass for pure?"

    Chorus. "Well done," said I, &c.

Full Chorus. Welcome all wonders in one sight!
     Eternity shut in a span!
Summer in winter! day in night!
     Heaven in earth, and God in man!
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth!

                    * * * *

Welcome--though not to those gay flies
     Gilded i' th' beams of earthly kings--
Slippery souls in smiling eyes--
     But to poor shepherds, homespun things,
Whose wealth's their flocks, whose wit's to be
Well read in their simplicity.

Yet when young April's husband showers
     Shall bless the fruitful Maia's bed,
We'll bring the firstborn of her flowers
     To kiss thy feet, and crown thy head:
To thee, dear Lamb! whose love must keep
The shepherds while they feed their sheep.

To thee, meek Majesty, soft king
     Of simple graces and sweet loves,
Each of us his lamb will bring,
     Each his pair of silver doves.
At last, in fire of thy fair eyes,
Ourselves become our own best sacrifice.

A splendid line to end with! too good for the preceding one. All temples and altars, all priesthoods and prayers, must vanish in this one and only sacrifice. Exquisite, however, as the poem is, we cannot help wishing it looked less heathenish. Its decorations are certainly meretricious. (pp. 242-46)

Source:  George MacDonald, "Crashaw and Marvell," in England's Antiphon, Macmillan & Co. Publishers, 1868, pp. 238-50.